Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

Perspective - Peace Through Strength: An Interview with the Honorable Jon Kyl

Senator Jon Kyl retired from the U.S. Senate in 2013 after an illustrious career in public service spanning more than a quarter-century. Beginning with four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1987-1995), and subsequently for eighteen years in the U.S. Senate, Senator Kyl was widely recognized as a leader on foreign policy and defense issues. He now serves as Senior Of Counsel in the Washington, DC, office of the international law firm of Covington & Burling. In February, he spoke with Journal Editor Ilan Berman about the threat of a nuclear Iran, American interests in the Asia-Pacific, and the state of U.S. ballistic missile defense.

Since November of 2013, the Obama administration has embarked upon high-profile diplomatic talks with Iran over its nuclear program. These talks have already netted meaningful sanctions relief for the Iranian regime, but as yet Tehran does not appear to have altered its strategic calculations regarding nuclear acquisition. As such, is a strategic breakthrough with Iran truly possible?

The theocratic regime in Tehran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons for its own protection, power projection, leverage over the West and Israel, and to fulfill its “rightful role” as the world’s leading Islamist state with an agenda to advance the faith. It has learned that its commitment is far greater than the West’s desire to stop it; and, notwithstanding sanctions, is convinced it can play on this difference to achieve its goal. Recent negotiations have only confirmed this confidence—commercial interests in the West are already exerting pressure to resume “normal” trade and financial activity with Iran. Moreover, the only possible impediment to its goal, a preemptive military strike by Israel, is now all but coopted by the “negotiation process.”

There is, in short, no reason to believe a strategic breakthrough with Iran is possible. The government of Iran is under no pressure from its citizens and undoubtedly believes economic sanctions will be relaxed enough to pose insufficient pressure on the government to change its policies. The West has nothing Iran wants more than the bomb, and it is not willing to do anything that would force a change in Iran’s goal. Therefore, Iran has no reason not to continue to pursue its goal of acquiring usable nuclear weapons.

Over the past several years, bilateral ties between Israel and the United States have seen a marked downturn, with growing disagreements over approaches to Iran and the Palestinians, among other issues. Is this schism lasting, or temporary? How can Washington and Jerusalem reinvigorate their strategic partnership?

Relations between the U.S. and Israeli heads of state are indeed at a low ebb, but there is strong support for Israel in the U.S. Congress. Until the end of the Obama administration, there is little prospect for a change in the former. The reasons have to do with the Administration’s views, not with Israeli “intransigence.” So, short of a complete reversal of Israel’s positions, there is little prospect for change in this relationship. In fact, it is likely to worsen because of the inevitable failure of Secretary Kerry’s mission to solve the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and—potentially—if Israel determines to take unilateral military action against Iran. In the former situation, since the U.S. has no leverage to get Palestinian leaders to acknowledge honestly Israel’s right to exist in peace, Israel (over which the U.S. has some leverage) will be blamed for the failure, further exacerbating the situation. Given the importance of a good U.S.-Israel relationship, a great opportunity for improvement will be presented to the new American President in 2017.

Since 2011, the Obama administration has embarked upon a very public “pivot” toward Asia. However, this reorientation appears to be mostly conceptual in nature, without sufficient resources to adequately secure American interests in the region. In your opinion, what are those—and how can America best pursue them?

The word “pivot” is intended by the Administration to signal moving away from somewhere else (presumably, except for the ill-fated effort to broker an Israel-Palestinian agreement, the Middle East). This is unfortunate, not because the U.S. doesn’t have major interests in the Pacific, but because we should not abandon interests in the Middle East.

Even a token force of 5,000 Marines stationed part of the year in the north of Australia is a big deal in the area. Allies and friends—from Australia in the south to Korea and Japan in the north—are eager to see the U.S. reassert its interest in a region of the world that has historically been important to the American interests. Because of the emergence of China as a competing economic and military power throwing its weight around, those relying on the U.S. require reassurance that we will be there if needed.

We have made commitments—even to the extent of offering a “nuclear umbrella”—to nations in East Asia. Others rely on us to help enforce access to sea lanes, use diplomacy to mediate disputes and enforce trade and other rule of law issues in international fora. All of these things are important for the U.S. as well. While it is absolutely true that the U.S. cannot be the “sheriff of the world,” it is also true that there are enormous benefits to peace and prosperity in the region by virtue of America’s physical and psychological presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

During your time in the U.S. Senate, you came to be widely regarded as a congressional champion for robust U.S. missile defense. In your opinion, where do we stand in the effort to erect effective defenses to protect the U.S. homeland and our deployed forces and allies? What more needs to be done?

It is ironic that the current Administration, which prides itself on taking a less aggressive military posture in the world than its predecessor, has done so much to undercut the most moral deterrent of all: missile defense. Rather than threatening to kill millions in a nation that might attack us, deterrence through defense simply makes an attack on us unworkable.

Yet, the Obama administration has slowed or stopped modernization of systems bequeathed to it by the previous administration, primarily, it would seem, to curry favor with Russia. Congress had to instruct the Department of Defense to proceed with work on a new kill vehicle for the Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) system deployed to protect the homeland from an attack from a country like North Korea. And the Administration has pulled back from its commitment to develop a substitute—a new and improved version of the Aegis system, which was to be deployed in Europe to protect both our NATO allies and the U.S. Because of Russian opposition, this Administration has gradually, quietly reduced our capabilities so as to be able to assure Vladimir Putin that our defenses would never be effective against Russian missiles. Imagine that.

Finally, the Administration has fought all efforts to even begin to research space-based defense, even opposing modest “situational awareness” planning. All of this is taking place, moreover, as both China and Russia are aggressively modernizing both their offensive and defensive capabilities.

The U.S. will have no leverage over potential competitors unless it reestablishes the credibility we had when Ronald Reagan convinced Soviet leaders that it was futile to try to compete with the U.S. Peace through strength worked. This Administration should try it.