Jim Webb at National Press Club Luncheon, Sept. 23; Watch Live

September 23, 2014

Former Senator James Webb (D-VA) delivered remarks on economic fairness, foreign policy, and the balance of power between Congress and the President at a National Press Club luncheon. Afterwards, he answered questions from the audience.

The speech aired live on C-SPAN 3.

The text of the speech:

Former Senator Jim Webb
National Press Club
23 September 2014

     I’ve said for many years that the truest legacy of my time in public service will come from the contributions of those who served under my command or on my staff. Our country has heard, and will continue to hear, from these talented men and women, wherever they go and however they choose to serve.  More than twenty who served on my Senate staff have made the trek during a busy work week to join us today. We did great things in those six years. They continue to show us that they are all-stars in a multitude of endeavors. I’d be pleased if they would stand and be recognized.

     I’d like to talk to you about what’s going on in our country, and what we can do to make things better. And let me begin by stealing a quote from Gore Vidal.

     Gore Vidal was one of the most irascible and brilliant minds of the Post World War II era. He once wrote that “you never know when you are happy; you only know when you were.” The same holds true for the times in which we live. We seldom know when we are living through a period of truly historic challenge; we only know, after it’s over, that we did.

     The internal workings of national policy are not a part of most Americans’ lives. You wake up every morning and you go to work or maybe try to find a job. You take care of your family. You pay your taxes. You turn on the TV and watch commentators scream at each other about how screwed up things are. Sometimes you agree with both of them and sometimes you agree with neither. Bad things happen in the world; that will never change. But it’s rare when the economy crashes at the same time we are at war.

     Here in America our multicultural society lives in a state of constant disagreement. This is frustrating. It is also creative. But the discussions of recent years have had a different tone. The very character of America is being called into question. Who are we as a people? What it is that unites us rather than divides us? Where is our common ground when the centrifugal forces of social cohesion are spinning so out of control that the people at the very top exist in a distant outer orbit, completely separated in their homes, schools, and associations from those of us who are even in the middle, and completely disconnected from those who exist paycheck to paycheck, or those at the bottom who are scorned as undeserving “takers” who simply want a free ride?

     Think about that. How can we say we are fellow Americans when tens of millions of people are being quietly written off not only by our most wealthy but even by many of our political leaders as hopeless who will never be fully employed and who should be avoided on the street, feared rather than encouraged to enter the American mainstream?

     We live in the greatest country on earth. The premise of the American Dream is that all of us have an equal opportunity to succeed. But let’s be honest. If you’re ten years old and Black and living in East Baltimore and going to the bathroom in a bucket because the landlord won’t fix your plumbing and your schools are places of intimidation and violence and the only people on the street making money are the ones selling drugs, no matter how hard you work you do not have the same picture of the American dream as a kid your age who is being groomed for prep school and then to go off to the Ivy League. Or if you’re a kid growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of Clay County Kentucky, by most accounts the poorest county in America, which also happens to be 98 percent white, surrounded by poverty, drug abuse and joblessness, and you leave your home in order to succeed, and when you do you are welcomed with the cynical, unbelieving stares and whispers of an America that no longer understands your cultural journey, and policies that can exclude you from a fair shot at education and employment with the false premise that if you are white you by definition have begun with some kind of socioeconomic advantage, what are you going to think about the so-called fairness of your own government?

     Or you are a man or woman who just did your time in prison, as have so many millions of Americans in today’s society. You paid the price of your mistake, which could be as simple as the sickness of drug addiction, or a moment of absolute but culpable stupidity. You want to re-enter the community that you left behind when you were locked up, neglected, possibly abused, and definitely marked for the rest of your life on every employment application that you will ever fill out. How do you do that, when there are no clear programs of transition that can prepare you for the structured demands of the work force, or society itself, which is going to fear you because you have spent time in prison? What do you do now? Do we, as a government, have an obligation to provide a structure that can assist you so that the rest of your life is not wasted? Or have you merely become just another throwaway, like the kids in East Baltimore and Clay County?

     Or, let’s say you’re thirty years old, without a high school diploma. Maybe you hit a rebellious streak when you were seventeen, went out and got a dead-end job, or got pregnant and became a single mom, and now you’re looking at the rest of your life and you feel hopeless. The big debate between the two political parties seems to be whether you should get a minimum wage, and whether the government should start universal programs to put kids into school from pre-kindergarten. What do you need, more than a minimum wage? And even if your kids attend pre-K, what happens when they come home? Is your life already over at the age of thirty? Would it change if we had a second-chance program where you could finish school and show your kids your own diploma and tell them to stay in school and study, and be an example, and aspire to a real job that pays more than minimum wage?

     What would it take to turn those things around, or is it impossible, or is it something that is beyond the role of government? What, then, should the government’s role be in our free society?

     This societal dislocation is happening at a time when America’s place on the international stage has become increasingly unclear, both in terms of our position as the economic beacon of the global community, and our vital role as the military guarantor of international stability.

     For more than two decades, since the end of the Cold War, our country has been adrift in its foreign policy. The greatest military power on earth has lacked a clearly defined set of principles that would communicate our national security objectives to our allies, to our potential adversaries, and most importantly to our own people. Over that same period our debates over domestic policies and fairness at home have become ever more polarized, driving our people further and further apart rather than bringing them together, in many cases deliberately exaggerating divisions based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation and geography in order to win elections rather than reaching toward solutions based on our love of country. Not surprisingly, the American people have grown ever more cynical about the national leadership in both parties, and increasingly more pessimistic about the future of the United States of America.

     Make no mistake: how we resolve these two formidable questions will determine what America looks like ten, twenty, even thirty years from now. In the not too distant future, depending on how we resolve these questions we will look back and judge ourselves. Did we have the courage to face the hard issues, to make the difficult decisions, to prove we were worthy of the sacrifices of the generations that went before us? Or did we fail, watching passively as the greatest nation on earth descended slowly, day by day, into mediocrity because it burned itself out through bad choices, petty debates, trivial party politics, and the inability of our leaders to come to grips with the deeper challenges and to work together to actually solve them?

     And so, we have reached an unavoidable and historic crossroads. The ways we choose to address the conditions that now so deeply divide us over the next few years will define who we really are as a people, and what our future will look like. Will we deserve to retain our place as the most respected and important guarantor of international stability, both militarily and economically? Will our children and grandchildren still be living in that special, unique place known throughout the world for its insistence on the notions of equality, justice, and fairness that embody the American Dream?  

     What are the responsibilities of our government? Here’s a list. Provide for the common defense. Promote the general welfare. Maintain order and public safety – for all, whether you’re in East Baltimore or North Arlington. Erect standards of fairness when it comes to the opportunity to succeed. Don’t pick favorites based on special access to the corridors of power.

     Despite any of the barriers that have too often divided us for political reasons, I’m naïve enough to believe that those of us who love our country can come together to rebuild our infrastructure and to repair the torn, divided fabric of our national spirit. True fairness is not an impossible dream, nor is the notion that we can return to a time when every reasonable American can look at a fellow citizen and feel a moment of camaraderie rather than a flash of mistrust, dislike or even fear. We need the energy and talent of every American, trained and put to use in ways that will make them more productive, their neighborhoods more vibrant, and our country stronger. More than that, every one of us should view it as our duty, if nothing else, to participate in the national discussion.

     So let me mention a few areas that I believe can make a difference.

1.  We must develop a clear statement of national security and foreign policy.

     An understandable statement of our national security interests is the basis of any great nation’s foreign policy. Clearly understood principles, and the determination to stand by them, are essential to stability and also to public support. Our allies will be able to adjust to our clarity. Our adversaries will know that we are serious. And our people will understand the logic of our place in the world.

     We do not have that now. Our foreign policy has become a tangled mess of what can only be called situational ethics. What does the United States stand for in the global arena? Under what conditions should we risk our national treasure, our credibility, and most importantly the lives of our military people? Here’s a quick bottom line: tell me what our national interest is, how we are going to defend it, and how we will know we have accomplished our mission. Unless you can do that you do not have a strategy.

     Once the Cold War ended, strategically we lost our way and we have yet to regain it. In the arena of international relations it is not a healthy thing when the world’s dominant military and economic power has a policy based on vagueness. And so we ended up, and continue to be trapped, in the never-ending, ever-changing entanglements of the Middle East, beginning with the Pandora’s Box that was opened with the invasion of Iraq and continuing through the illogical and still-fermenting nightmare of the Arab Spring, particularly our inadvisable actions in Libya.

     I was one who warned before the invasion of Iraq that our entanglement would destabilize the region, empower Iran, and weaken our influence in other places. Let me quote from an article that I wrote in the Washington Post on September 4th, 2002, five months before we invaded Iraq. “America’s best military leaders know that they are accountable to history not only for how they fight wars, but also for how they prevent them. The greatest military victory of our time — bringing an expansionist Soviet Union in from the cold while averting a nuclear holocaust — was accomplished not by an invasion but through decades of intense maneuvering and continuous operations. With respect to the situation in Iraq, they are conscious of two realities that seem to have been lost in the narrow debate about Saddam Hussein himself. The first reality is that wars often have unintended consequences… The second is that a long-term occupation of Iraq would beyond doubt require an adjustment of force levels elsewhere, and could eventually diminish American influence in other parts of the world.”

     Then later, “The Japanese … fully cooperated with [American occupation forces after World War Two]. The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam… In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.”

     What should our governing principles be?

     First and foremost, if a President wishes to conduct offensive military operations, he – or she – should be able to explain clearly the threat to our national security, the specific objectives of the operations, and the end result he or she wishes to obtain.

     Second, we will honor our treaty commitments. But we are not obligated to join a treaty partner if they elect to use force outside the direct boundaries of our commitment, as in Libya. Neither the United Nations nor NATO has the power to bring the United States into an elective war without the consent of our Congress.

     Third, we will maintain superiority in our strategic systems. This includes not only nuclear weapons but also such areas as technology, space, and cyber warfare.

     Fourth, we will preserve and exercise the right of self-defense as guaranteed under international law and the UN Charter.

     Fifth, we have important allies around the world, especially in Asia and the Middle East, whom we will continue to support in many ways. This will not cease. In fact, as we clarify our other commitments, these relationships will be strengthened.

     Sixth, with respect to the war against terrorism, we will act vigorously against terrorist organizations if they are international in nature and are a direct threat to our national security. This includes the right to conduct military operations in foreign countries if that country is unwilling or unable to address the threat. We maintain this right through international law, and through Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

     However, there is an important caveat to how our country should fight international terrorism. The violation of this principle has caused us a lot of trouble in the recent past. I can do no better than to quote from an article I wrote on September 12th, 2001, the day after the 9 / 11 attacks. “DO NOT OCCUPY TERRITORY. The terrorist armies make no claim to be members of any nation-state. Similarly, it would be militarily and politically dangerous for our military to operate from permanent or semi-permanent bases, or to declare that we are defending specific pieces of terrain in the regions where the terrorist armies live and train. We already have terrain to defend – the United States and our outposts overseas – and we cannot afford to expand this territory in a manner that would simply give the enemy more targets.”

     And finally, a warning spurred by the actions of this Administration in places such as Libya. There is no such thing as the right of any President to unilaterally decide to use force in combat operations based on such vague concepts as “humanitarian intervention.” If a treaty does not obligate us, if American forces are not under attack or under threat of imminent attack, if no Americans are at risk, the President should come to the congress before he or she sends troops into Harm’s Way.

2.  Give our people some hope in issues of economic fairness and social justice.

     Our working people have struggled following the collapse of the economy in the final months of the Bush administration, while those at the very top have continued to separate themselves from the rest of our society. As our economy has recovered from the Great Recession, the stock market has nearly tripled, from 6443 in March of 2009 to more than 17,000 as of today. At the same time, study after study shows that real income levels among working people have suffered a steady decline since January of 2009. And not only for our workers – according to the Wall Street Journal, loans to small business owners, who traditionally have been the backbone of the American success story, have decreased by 18 percent since 2008, while overall business loans have increased by 9 percent.

     The growth of our economy has been increasingly reflected in capital gains rather than in the salaries of our working people. In many cases, the corporate headquarters and financial sectors are here, while the workers themselves are overseas. Many of our younger workers here in the United States are subject to complicated hiring arrangements that in many cases don’t even pay health care or retirement. Corporate success is measured by the increase in the value of the stocks, and corporate leaders are paid accordingly. When I graduated from the Naval Academy the average corporate CEO made 20 times the average worker’s pay. Now it’s closer to 350.

     This is not a global phenomenon. In Germany – which has the highest balance of trade in the world – the average CEO makes about 11 times what an average worker makes. Many of our brightest economic analysts, high among them Ralph Gomory, point out that this disparity came about not because of globalization, but because executive compensation became linked with the value of a company’s stock rather than the company’s actual earnings. Investors would hardly complain. And our workers – the most productive work force in the world – have been the ones left behind.

     If you make enough money to buy stocks, you’re probably doing OK these days. If you’re working in a successful company that provides stock options or bonuses in stocks, you’re probably doing pretty well. But it you’re spending all your income paying rent and putting food on the table and clothes on the backs of your kids, you’re probably living on the outer edge of the American Dream.

      I would agree that we cannot tax ourselves into prosperity. But we do need to reconfigure the tax code so that our taxes fall in a fair way. It is possible to simplify the tax code, including reducing the corporate tax rate in exchange for eliminating numerous loopholes, and to examine shifting our tax policies away from income and more toward consumption. We did not even have a federal income tax in this country until 1913. The loopholes and exceptions that have evolved have made a mockery out of true economic fairness. I would never support raising taxes on ordinary earned income, whether it goes to a school teacher or a nurse or a doctor or a film star. But we need to find a better way.

3. Rebuild our national infrastructure.

      The technology revolution has pushed a lot of lower-skilled people into unemployment. And yet everywhere around us we see roads that need to be widened or repaired, bridges that are beginning to crumble and others that need to be built, traffic jams from clogged highways, schools that need to be built, expanded or repaired, inner city neighborhoods with cracked sidewalks, broken windows and people on the street. Franklin Roosevelt mobilized a nation whose unemployment rate had reached 25 percent. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees and cleared land. We built roads, put people to work, cleaned things up. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vision brought us the Interstate Highway system – and the jobs it took to build it.   There are people who need jobs and there is work to be done. And along the way, I believe it is possible to meld such a program with another one, featuring adult education for those who did lose their way when they were seventeen and now know how important it is, as a worker and as a parent, to get that diploma, earn some money, and be a role model for your kids.

(4) Reform our criminal justice system.  

     This is not a political issue; it is a leadership issue. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Since I doubt we have the most evil people in the world, many now agree that we’re doing something wrong. Millions of our citizens are either in prison or under the supervision of the criminal justice system. During my time in the Senate we worked exhaustively to examine every component of this process, from point of apprehension to length of sentencing to the elements of life in prison, including prison administration, and to the challenge of re-entering society and hopefully living productive lives.

     When one applies for a job, the stigma of having been in prison is like a tattoo on your forehead. In many cases, prison life itself creates scars and impediments that can only be remediated through structured re-entry programs. Millions of Americans are now in this situation, many of them non-violent offenders who went to prison due to drug use. To those who wonder whether we can or should put such programs into place, my answer is this: Do you want these former offenders back on the street coming after your money or your life, or do you want them in a job, making money and having a life?

5.  Finally, let’s find a way to return to good governance.  

     It will take time, but it is possible to rebalance the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, and to carefully manage the federal government, which is surely the most complex bureaucracy in the world.  A lot of people running for President, and a lot of people covering those who are running for President, seem to skip past the realities of governing into the circus of the political debate. The federal bureaucracy is huge and Byzantine. I have seen many people come to public service from highly successful careers in the business world, only to be devoured and humiliated by the demands of moving policy through the bureaucracy and then the Congress.

     The administration of our government needs to be fixed. With the right leadership and the right sense of priorities, it can be.

     I spent four years as a Marine, four more as a full committee counsel in the Congress, five years in the Pentagon, one as a Marine and four as a Defense Executive, sitting on the Defense Resources Board, and six years as a member of the United States Senate. I am well aware and appreciate that there are a lot of highly talented, dedicated people in our federal work force. And I know they would be among the first to agree that we would benefit by taking a deep breath and basically auditing the entire federal government in order to re-justify the functioning of every program and every office.

     The way to solve these challenges and others is the way that other such challenges have always been solved in the past. Find good leaders. Tell them where the country needs to go. Free them up to use their own creative energies. Trust their integrity. Supervise. Hold them accountable, just as they should hold their own people accountable and just as the American people should hold every national leader accountable. Have the courage of your convictions. Have the humility to listen to other ideas. Remember the greatness of our country, and the sacrifices that have gone before us. And never forget that history should and will judge all of us if we ever let the American dream die.

            Thank you.