An Interview With Duncan Hunter
Earlier this week, I did a phone interview with Congressman Duncan Hunter, a former Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a former ranger in Vietnam, who is one of the Republican contenders vying for the presidency in 2008. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
PS: I can tell you from talking to Hunter that he is VERY PASSIONATE about building a fence on the border and about any and all things related to the military. He also seems to have a pretty good sense of humor.
John Hawkins: Talk to us about the war in Iraq. Give us a broad overview of what you think we should be doing right now.
Duncan Hunter: Well, the US is following in the same basic pattern that we’ve followed for 60 years in expanding freedom around the world. (The first step is) that we stand up a free government and we’ve done that in Iraq.
The second step is we stand up a military capable of protecting that government and the third step is the US leaves. We followed that pattern in Japan and the Philippines and Salvadore and our own hemisphere and it’s been the traditional and the effective method of this country spreading freedom around the world.
…I think the American people have been surprised by the enthusiasm with which the Iraqis have taken to elections and politics and right now we’re on the second phase, which is a very difficult phase and that’s standing up their military.
We are training the Iraqi military right now. We’ve got 470 embedded teams right now. Those are training teams within the Iraqi military itself and my recommendation to the President and to the Iraqis is that one thing they could do right now that would accelerate the maturation process for the Iraqi military is to pick the 27 battalions that are in the quiet provinces in Iraq – 9 of the 18 provinces have virtually no action taking place – take those 27 battalions and move them into the fighting in Baghdad and Anbar province in the Sunni Triangle.
Nothing matures a military force quicker than actual military operations. That develops cohesion that re-enforces the chain of command, develops combat effectiveness, and I think most importantly it validates the link between the military and the civilian government – that is, when the Ministry of Defense picks up the phone and calls a battalion commander and tells him to saddle up and move to Baghdad, if he doesn’t move, they need to reach into a battalion which is doing well, pull out a field officer and replace the officer who won’t move with one that will. So that is my recommendation to the President and one thing I told him is I’m sure that he’s not short on recommendations right now.
John Hawkins: Now, with the Israelis and the Palestinians – tell us a little bit about how you see that conflict. How would President Duncan Hunter handle that?
Duncan Hunter: …I think the key is to maintain capability in Israel, particularly defensive capability and that is the ability to take down, for example, short range ballistic missiles — and one thing that I encouraged the Israelis to do in the ’80’s and since 1985 or so.
In fact, I have a letter that I sent to Mr. (Yitzhak) Rabin around ’85 or ’86 that I drafted and got signed by a large number of members of the Armed Services Committee – recommended that they start developing with the US a missile defense, then recommended the Arrow missile as the centerpiece of that defense — …and Israel is going to need at some point in the future the ability to take down incoming rockets which gave such leverage to Hamas in this last conflict.
John Hawkins: Now, how technologically feasible is that? I know a lot of them are very small, very mobile.
Duncan Hunter: Actually, it is technologically feasible because although they’re small and they’re mobile, they’re also fairly slow compared to long range ballistic missiles that move in at a very high velocity.
John Hawkins: As far as the conflict with the Palestinians goes, what do you think about the wall? Is that something you approve of?
Duncan Hunter: Well, I think I’ve learned one thing and that’s that fences work and the walls work and separations work and what they basically afford to any nation is the delay of entry. In fact, a number of people who have looked at the border fence, who have now supported me on the border fence in the US, have …observed the fences in Israel and their effectiveness.
So I think that the fence generally in the Israel fence program has been an effective one from a security standpoint and I think in the US the border fence in the US is no longer an immigration issue primarily; it’s a security issue.
You have to know who’s coming into this country and what they’re bringing with them. The fences, the double fence in San Diego that I led the effort on and funded over the last ten years or so, have been very effective. It’s knocked back the smuggling of people and narcotics by more than 90%, stopped all the drive-through drug people, and would be a hindrance to terrorists should they decide to come across a land border between the US and Mexico and to California.
…Speaking of fences — I think that it’s important we build the fence that the Congress just passed and the President just provided for. …I wrote that bill…It defines the smugglers’ corridors. It mandates that the fence be built initially in the smugglers’ corridors that is based on the amount of people and narcotics being smuggled. …I know we’ve moved from the Israeli fence to the border fence, but you did it. You shouldn’t have mentioned fences.
John Hawkins: Well, that was my next question. Since we’re there, you are the mover and shaker behind that San Diego border fence and you have a reputation for being very tough on illegal immigration….
Duncan Hunter: And we’ve got to build this fence. The Democrats have now shown indications that they don’t want to build it, but there are two (reasons for) the fence besides enforcement that I think are compelling reasons to build that fence on schedule.
The first piece is that the major part of the fence is to be built between Calexico, California and Douglas, Arizona and that portion, that’s 392 miles, that’s the area through which most of the people come who have died of dehydration or sunstroke in the desert sun in the summer months.
So one provision that we put in there is that we have to have at least interlocking cameras…before the hot season, so there’s a humanitarian dimension to this and that’s something that’s been missed by many of the liberals.
If you had 400 teenagers drowning at a canal, the first thing you’d do is fence it and when you have 400 people a month expiring in the desert sun, we don’t do them any service by keeping that border open. So that first piece…that’s got the first priority is across the area to which most of the people travel who die in the summer heat. …We put a deadline on completing that to get it done before the hot season – at least get the interlocking cameras that will allow the border patrol to respond to entries in such a way that they can save lives of people. So that’s a life-saving provision in that particular section of fence.
Then we’ve got another piece, that’s the Laredo piece, John, and, you know, right now Nuevo Laredo is controlled by the druglords. So our provision that we fence on both sides of the city of Laredo will have a salutary effect (there). A law enforcement officer has a fairly short life expectancy after he’s announced he’s against the druglords. He gets assassinated fairly quickly. Nuevo Laredo has a heavy backpack cocaine trade. That means people carrying cocaine in backpacks leave across the border from Nuevo Laredo and disappear into the Texas brush country. So we (want to get) this Nuevo Laredo section to…help the law-abiding citizens at Nuevo Laredo that do not back the drug trade.
John Hawkins: Now, tell us a little bit about what we could expect from President Duncan Hunter on the illegal immigration issue beyond the fence. What else would we see? What would you want to do?
Duncan Hunter: Well, I think that we’ve got to do us a two-step program and the first step is to secure the border and the second step then is to…do internal enforcement. You’ve got 250,000 hard-core criminals – in federal, state, and local penitentiaries and jails. That means you have a large criminal element that’s operating within the US committing serious crimes against Americans and their property and once we secure the border, I would make an emphasized effort to ensure that we are to round up criminal aliens and…force their deportation.
In some cases you’ve got countries which have resisted deportation of, for example, the MS-13 Gangs. …With those gangs whose countries at this point refuse to take them back, …I would apply leverage to those countries. If they want to have people legally emigrating into the US, they’re going to have to take the gang members back.
(Also), I think the fair thing to have for employers is to have an extension of this pilot program that we have right now …is a system in which through a phone call…you can receive from the Department of Homeland Security in fairly short order a “yes” or “no” as to whether your employees are legally within the US. (We should) expand that program throughout the country – and I like the idea also of a tamperproof ID card. I think that’s kind of an important thing.
John Hawkins: You’re a member of the fiscally conservative Republican Study Group, but the Club for Growth blog, among some others, has dinged you a little bit for voting for some bills that a lot of fiscal conservatives might (oppose). So, let me ask you: if you become President, what would you do to erase the deficit and what could fiscal conservatives expect from you?
Duncan Hunter: Well, first, …I’m a supporter of supply side economics and I think the general proposition that if you leave a few bucks in the pockets of American businesses rather than take it for taxes, …(then) the tax base is actually increased and revenue is enhanced. I believe that’s a valid proposition and I support that and that’s been reflected in my voting record for tax cuts. So I think that’s the way you supply – you increase the revenues into the federal government and you do that by encouraging growth.
Now there’s one thing that I think is very, very important right now, where I diverge, I think, some from the Club For Growth…I’m a Ronald Reagan trader…let me quote you Ronald Reagan on trade. He said, “To make the international trading system work all must abide by the rules.” He further said, “When governments assist their exporters in ways that violate international laws, then the playing field is no longer level and there’s no longer free trade.”
Right now…when we compete with China, China starts with 74 points on the scoreboard before the opening kick-off. They get a 17% rebate…to their exporters; they’re exporting to the US. Basically they’re allowed to operate tax-free. Then they put in place a 17% penalty on our importers. That creates a 34% disparity in the world’s competition. Then they de-value their currency by 40%, through currency manipulation. So they start with 74 points on the scoreboard before the opening kick-off.
That disparity is so great that you now have lots of financial advisers who are walking into the boardrooms of companies throughout America telling their people that even if they have a more efficient labor and production rate than the Chinese in their particular industry, that it makes sense from a tax and tariff standpoint to move their jobs from the US to China. So we have actually…acquiesced to a system that doesn’t allow the most efficient trader to win. It allows the subsidized trader to win and the effect of that is that you have businesses which pay high wages throughout this country — not based on labor rates but based on the way government has set the rules and set the competition in this arena called trade, that are contemplating moving to China.
…Let me give you an example. I was in South Carolina. Nucor Steel in Charleston has 800 workers. They produce as much steel as… a Chinese plant which has 17,000 workers. They beat the Chinese 20 to 1 for labor efficiency and they pay their people an average of $75,000 a year. Labor cost is not a major issue with them because they’re so highly efficient and they are so leveraged with technology and yet, they see now China which is expanding its steel production this year by 130 million tons which is more than the total steel production of the US.
That’s not fair; that’s cheating and that causes aberrations in the trade system and it moves massive amounts of income of what otherwise would be American revenues off-shore. So I don’t think you’re going to be able to get the US budget deficit under control unless we have a fair trading system. So I believe very strongly in the Reagan position on trade when he said what he said to make the international trading system work, all must abide by the rules. They’re not abiding by the rules and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to play in a league in which all the other teams have 74 points on the scoreboard before the game begins. If they’re really that efficient and really that good and they really want the rules of Adam Smith to work, then they shouldn’t need the 74 points before the game starts.
That has to be a part of any attempt to balance the federal budget – and one more point, we in government do lots of things that individuals should do for themselves. I’m a conservative; I believe that the government that governs the least governs the best. There is one area where only the government can make a difference and can control the situation and that’s in international trading arenas. Only the government can sign a trade deal; individuals can’t sign a trade deal. So, if China insists on a trade deal that gives them 74 points on the scoreboard before the opening kick-off, the workers and management at Nucor Steel can’t change that. They have to live within the rules that their government has created so that’s one obligation of government which not only should be discharged by government but government is the only entity which can discharge it. So that’s a difference that I have with some of my colleagues
John Hawkins: What about CAFTA or NAFTA along those same lines?
Duncan Hunter: Well, with NAFTA, Mexico also has a rebate system for their producers. So if you want to operate tax-free, you go to Mexico. You create products and you ship them back to the US and you get your taxes rebated to you and you ship them back into the US.
So, and incidentally, on NAFTA, I led the debate against NAFTA on the Republican side in ’94. The proponents said, “Listen, we have a 3 billion dollar trade surplus with Mexico. It’s one of the few countries in the world in which we have a trade surplus,” and here are their words, “Let’s build on that.” We passed NAFTA and the next year we went into a 15 billion dollar trade deficit and we’ve never come close to coming out of it. So what they predicted didn’t happen. They also predicted that we would build a middle class in Mexico that would buy more washing machines and Cadillacs; that never happened. They also predicted that the illegal immigration problem would be solved; that never happened and they also predicted that the problem with massive drug trafficking into the US would be solved; that never happened.
John Hawkins: Getting back to fiscal conservatism, what would you do beyond (trade related issues) to reduce the deficit?
Duncan Hunter: I’m reminded that if nobody showed up in the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., it would have very little effect on what happens in the day to day classrooms throughout America. So I think we need to allow more resources to be spent in classrooms and less in the bureaucracy and I think that would save some money. I’ve obviously voted regularly to de-fund the Endowment For The Arts and a number of other programs. I think we need to spend about 5 to 5 ‘% of the GDP over the next 5 to 10 years on national security. Kennedy spent 9% and Reagan, 6.% I think we should spend about 5 ‘% and then make tough choices with the amount of money that we have left – but again, I’m relying on growth, on economic growth, as an engine for curing the deficit, for narrowing the deficit.
John Hawkins: No new spending and then grow our way out of it? That sort of thing?
Duncan Hunter: Yeah, I’ve voted over the years for any number of spending mechanisms – Graham-Latta in 1981 to other mechanisms for slowing down the rate of (spending) growth except for the defense sector for freezing the rate of growth. …(I)f you look at my voting record, I have traditionally voted to cut spending…and I don’t know if you’ve got the congressmen rated there on fiscal conservatism – but I’m on the conservative end of the political spectrum.
John Hawkins: I would take it if some sort of Balanced Budget Amendment were to come up, that would be something you would support?
Duncan Hunter: Certainly, if only it had appropriate rules and reservations for national security.
John Hawkins: Would you like to see Roe v. Wade overturned?
Duncan Hunter: Yes. You know, I’m the author of the personhood-at-conception bill which right now has over 100 co-sponsors …that would define personhood as moment of conception, so, it would allow us to have a reversal of the effects of Roe v. Wade without a constitutional amendment.
John Hawkins: As President, it is entirely possible that you’d have an opportunity to select one or perhaps even multiple Supreme Court Justices. Can you tell us what you’d look for in a Supreme Court nominee and if there’s anyone on the court now who sort of embodies what you’re looking for in a judge?
Duncan Hunter: I’d just say that I think that I would like to see strict constructionists and people of great wisdom and I’d also like to see people who have a heart for the least of those among us and certainly that would be reflected in the unborn.
John Hawkins: Anybody you think fits that bill on the court now?
Duncan Hunter: I like (Mr. Hunter mispronounced Scalia’s name as “Scalya” and then immediately corrected himself). Scalia too; he’s a good one. (laughs) He’s also a good hunter.
John Hawkins: I’ve heard he likes to hunt.
Duncan Hunter: He’s a turkey hunter.
John Hawkins: One thing that gets brought up a lot is electability. If someone said to you, “Duncan Hunter, if you were the nominee, what makes you think you’d win? What do you bring to the table that’s going to allow you to beat the Democratic candidate?” What would you say to him?
Duncan Hunter: Well, I think the American people understand that in this new era security is going to be very important and I think there’ll be more emphasis on security than there has been in the past – and I think I bring that dimension and expertise in national security – and that’s helpful.
With respect to homeland security, working on understanding the border, understanding the need to be secure at home is something that I also think that I have credibility on. …I think the actions that I have undertaken have resonated with the American people – things like the border fence, for example, increasing the border patrol.
With respect to trade, I think that trade is the new hot economic issue and will be a critical economic issue for the next 10 to 20 years because of the degree to which trade now affects our economy and our standard of living and the idea of having a level playing field and insisting on a two-way street with trade is something that I have…found to resonate strongly not only with Democrats, but with Republicans. …You know, there are only two Republicans on Mt. Rushmore. They were both against free trade. So I’ve got those issues. I think those are strong issues that resonate strongly with the American people and the trade issue differentiates me – separates me, I think – from the rest of the Republicans. I think that it’s one that is a compelling issue with Democrats and Republicans — and it’ll bring a large number of blue-collar Democrats to my side.
John Hawkins: Now, we’re getting pretty close to the end here and what I’d like to do is throw some much discussed ideas out there and get a quick reaction from you on them. For example, if I were to say something like NAFTA, you might say, “I’m against that.” If I asked about building a border fence, you might say, “That’s something I support.” Feel free to go into more depth if need be, but basically we’re looking for short answers on some issues.
Duncan Hunter: (laughs) You’re calling the wrong guy.
John Hawkins: (laughs) A 2/3 majority to raise taxes.
Duncan Hunter: Put me down as “yes” on (that). I’m a co-sponsor of (a bill that does that).
John Hawkins: Term limits for members of Congress.
Duncan Hunter: I’m not for it and I’ll tell you why. If term limits had been in effect, Winston Churchill wouldn’t have been available to save the world for freedom in 1939. His meter would have expired. I think that the greatest term limits in the world are called an election and I’m reminded also that the poster boys for term limits were offered up in ’94 – Mr. Rostenkowski and Mr. Foley – who were offered up by the term limits proponents as being examples of why people would never lose unless there were term limits — Both lost in that election.
John Hawkins: Partial birth abortion.
Duncan Hunter: Yeah, I’m against it, very strongly.
John Hawkins: An amendment to the Constitution specifically defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Duncan Hunter: I think that’s good.
John Hawkins: School vouchers.
Duncan Hunter: Yes
John Hawkins: Drilling ANWR.
Duncan Hunter: Yes
John Hawkins: Banning earmarks.
Duncan Hunter: No. The Constitution gives to Congress the charge to build the defense budget. As you know, I’m the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. The entire budget and the idea that we’re no longer supposed to build the entire budget, we’re supposed to accept as sacrosanct the budget comes over from a political process in the Pentagon, number one, goes against the Constitution and abandons our Constitutional responsibility.
Number Two, it takes away the judgment of members who have been examining defense issues literally for dozens of years. The average experience level on my Armed Services Committee is in excess of ten years. The average budget person who’s working in the Pentagon has been there for about a year and a half.
Let me give you some examples of things that I have added to the budget; in fact, I publish mine on the internet. I call them congressional initiatives because I think that earmark is a pejorative term. I put in an additional 10 million dollars for jammers to defeat road-side bombs, portable jammers. The Pentagon didn’t have any jammers that could be carried by infantrymen. That meant they had nothing for the troops. I put in 10 million dollars and we built and deployed jammers for our dismounted troops within 70 days. We did 10,000 of them in 70 days. Armored vests, additional humvees, a ship, the X-Craft which goes 60 miles an hour, which is manned by a crew of only 26 people, which is truly transformational of the US Navy, and which has been given glowing marks by former Secretaries of the Navy – that was added. Let me give you other things that have been added by Congress – an aircraft carrier when Jimmy Carter didn’t want to put it in the budget, the B-1 bomber and the President didn’t want to put it in the budget, so the point is that Congress is supposed to, and is charged, and the Constitution says Congress shall provide for the Navies, the equipping of the Navies, the Army, and by implication, the Air Force. It’s our Constitutional duty…
John Hawkins: Missile defense shield.
Duncan Hunter: Yes, and I’ve been a strong supporter of that. I’ve put in the initial money for missile defense when it first started, I supported it strongly then, and I supported missile defense for Israel, very strongly. Incidentally, under my watch, we’ve actually deployed missile defense. We have our first missiles that are now deployed in Alaska and the west coast which had limited capability to intercept incoming ballistic missiles.
John Hawkins: Affirmative Action.
Duncan Hunter: I’m for a very conservative approach to Affirmative Action.
John Hawkins: So, the one where you basically just tell people about the job, but you don’t give any preference based on race?
Duncan Hunter: I would say it’s in very, very limited areas where Affirmation Action – I would say building opportunity, affording opportunity, but not giving hand-outs.
John Hawkins: Ok, along similar lines, I’m going to bring up a name or organization. You just give me a quick reaction.
Duncan Hunter: If you’re running for this office, you shouldn’t be the proponent of quick reaction.
John Hawkins: I understand. I’m just trying to get a lot of stuff out there about you, you know, so people can get a good feel about your positions on a lot of issues.
John Hawkins: Ronald Reagan.
Duncan Hunter: Peace through strength, my soul mate and the guy that I ran with in 1980 and whose views I still strongly support.
John Hawkins: Bill Clinton.
Duncan Hunter: A gentleman I didn’t run with in 1980 and whose views I do not support. I would say that person who smashed the military, who left the army with roughly half of its standing force, who walked out in 2000, and who devastated the US military. OK, the man who devastated the US military, that’s how I’d define him.
John Hawkins: Jimmy Carter.
Duncan Hunter: A man who believed that appeasement was a stronger tool of foreign policy than strength or was a more important tool of foreign policy than strength.
John Hawkins: Fox News.
Duncan Hunter: Both sides.
John Hawkins: Donald Rumsfeld
Duncan Hunter: Did a good job.
John Hawkins: United Nations.
Duncan Hunter: An organization of limited value and I would say whose military capability is always exaggerated – whose ability to project security forces in a hostile environment is always over-estimated.
John Hawkins: New York Times.
Duncan Hunter: …Liberals who are often wrong, never unsure. (laughs)
John Hawkins: Mr. Hunter, I really appreciate your time. I know I put you through the ringer here…
Duncan Hunter: No, I like that.
John Hawkins: (Is there anything else you’d like to add?)
Duncan Hunter: Note that my son Duncan did two tours in Iraq as Marine Lieutenant, the last one in Fallujah.
John Hawkins: Is he back home?
Duncan Hunter: He is back home and he just finished his hitch with the Marine Corp and he went to Idaho to be a land developer and I got off the plane to see him and the front page of the Boise newspaper said, “Housing Collapse Hits Boise.” So, I said, “Dunc, you’re here just in time, as usual.” He said, “No, it’s going to be great.” So he’s optimistic…
John Hawkins: I really appreciate your time…
You can hear more from Duncan Hunter at Peace Through Strength PAC.