U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) joined the Wilton Kiwanis Club on Wednesday, Aug. 26, at its regular Wednesday lunch at the Tompkins pavilion in Kiwanis Park on Danbury Road.
The federal politicians did more than eat; each gave a speech about the current state of national foreign affairs and fielded questions from those in attendance.
Himes, who is on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Intelligence, spoke about his recent trip to Ukraine and the diplomatic relationship between Washington and Moscow.
He called the situation in Ukraine “heartbreaking” and said “Putin is a bully.”
“He flouts international law. He has badly hurt the economy of Russia both directly and indirectly because his behavior has resulted in U.S. sanctions and international sanctions being placed on that economy, which is not much of an economy to begin with,” Himes said.
While he believes that, in a perfect world, the U.S. would have already given weapons to the Ukrainians, he made it clear that, in his opinion, doing so is not as easy as it might sound.
“The idealists in us would say that we should arm the Ukrainians, which we are not doing right now. We are training the Ukrainian military... but you’ve got this nasty stalemate,” he said.
According to Himes, Washington fears that if it dabbles too deeply in the Ukrainian crisis, Russia will not cooperate with the U.S. in situations where working together is critical.
“We have some pretty profound mutual interests with the Russians and the Chinese that we don’t want to damage, specifically, and I spend hours on this a day, Islamic extremism and the terrorism that comes out of that; that is as much a problem for China and for Russia as it is for Europe and the United States,” he said.
“We want to hit Putin back,” Himes explained, “as he acts in these aggressive and illegal ways, but we don’t want to hit him back so hard that he ceases to work with us on those things where we have a common interest.”
The Middle East
After Himes was finished speaking, Murphy took the floor, addressing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Murphy is on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
He began by expressing his contempt for the Iraq war, calling it a “debacle” that “cost far too many American lives and far too much American treasure for a payoff that never came and for consequences that still accrue to the detriment of the United States.”
He said our past involvement in Iraq educates everything he does as a senator, and cautioned those in attendance that if we as a nation believe too strongly in our own abilities, we could be making the same, as he sees them, mistakes all over again.
“I think,” Murphy said, “that we are still living with the vestiges of the hubris that got us into the Iraq war in the first place. I don’t think that we are going to, at least in my lifetime, revisit that kind of nation-building exercise.
I don’t think you’re going to see the United States taking over a country writ large and running everything from its transportation system to its banking system as a proxy, but if you look at the way in which we are continuing to conduct our operations in the Middle East, you still see this belief that the United States can do anything that it wants, that it can influence people and events on the ground in very foreign lands in a way that doesn’t necessarily suggest that we have learned all of our lessons.”
As evidence, he cited the training program in Syria.
“We have undergone a program to train so-called ‘Syrian moderates’ to fight against ISIS, and, as you have probably read, we set a goal of 5,000 rebels to be trained through the Unites States ... and after a couple years, maybe a year and a half, we’ve trained 50,” Murphy said.
“So we have 50 trained fighters on the ground in Syria,” he continued, “and just about a month ago, their leadership was kidnapped by the al-Nusra Front — Al-Qaeda in Syria — such that the entire group right now is effectively rendered meaningless as a fighting force, and all of the hundreds of millions of dollars that we put into training — which resulted in 50 people getting trained — out the window. It still suggests that we have this notion that there is an American solution to every problem that befalls places like the Middle East.”
In conclusion, Murphy said this: “We absolutely have to protect our interests when there are terrorists organizing that have legitimate plans to attack the United States; we have to go after them and eliminate them, but I think we have to understand that there are limits to American military power, and often when we get involved in places like the Middle East, we make things worse on the ground, not better.”
Iran nuclear deal
One of the main points addressed by both Murphy and Himes was the Iran nuclear deal, on which Congress will vote in September.
Himes said he supports the deal because the Iranian nuclear program is gaining speed in disregard of U.S.-imposed sanctions.
“This agreement offers us something that we have never had before, which is the possibility of a 15-year period in which we don’t have to worry about being surprised by an Iranian nuclear test,” he said.
Murphy agreed with Himes, adding that, by pulling the deal off the table, if Congress does vote it down in September, the U.S. will have effectively destroyed any chance it had of negotiating with Iran in the future.
“There is this fantasy notion out there,” he said, “that if the United States Congress rejects the deal, that we’ll be able to come back to the table and negotiate a better deal. That is just simply not possible ... Even if you suppose that we can keep in place some of the sanctions, there’s no one that disputes that the sanctions will largely fray.
“And so,” Murphy continued, “if you imagine a world six months from now, a year from now, two years from now, in which the sanctions are clearly weaker, and Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than it is today, how are we, then, in a stronger position than we are today, to get a better deal? Maybe you could bring them to the table, but our leverage will be clearly weaker than it is at this moment now.”
He added that Iranian hard-liners expect us to pull out of the deal, and that to do so would be to prove them right, lessening the likelihood of a diplomatic solution even further.
“Right now, the so-called ‘moderates’ — and it’s all relative within Iran — are in charge. The hard-liners are fighting this agreement, and they claim that the United States is not a fair dealer, that our agenda, in the end, is just about regime change in Tehran. If we reject this deal, we play right into the hard-liners’ argument,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s final point on the deal with Iran was that our superior military exists not for the sake of aggressive dominance, but for the riskiest of negotiations.
“The reason that we have the biggest, baddest, most capable military in the world ... is so that we can take chances, like this deal,” he said. “This deal is a bet. We can’t be 100% guaranteed that the Iranians will comply, but the reason that we have invested in the military that we have, the reason why this president has developed the world’s only bunker-busting penetrating bomb that can get to the deep nuclear-research sites in Iran, is so that we can give diplomacy a chance, such that if it doesn’t work, we still have a military option to protect our interests and those interests in the Middle East. Why spend 500 billion dollars a year on the biggest, most capable military if you don’t use it to try to give diplomatic, peaceful solutions a chance with the looming threat of military action hanging over the heads of those that you’re dealing with?
“I’m hopeful that Congress is not going to reject this deal; it doesn’t look like it will, as the numbers are coming together today,” Murphy concluded.
Mental health bill
After lunch, Murphy spoke with The Bulletin about new legislation he has introduced together with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) aimed at overhauling and strengthening the mental health system in the United States.
“The bill is about increasing access,” he said, “so building more inpatient beds and getting more clinicians to see people with mental illness more quickly. There’s a big section of the bill on reducing discrimination against people with mental illness. We want these insurance companies to cover mental illness just like they cover physical illness, and then we’re trying to uncompartmentalize the mental health delivery system. We want providers to be talking to each other; we want people who are doing primary care to be talking to the behavioral health clinicians, and there’s a lot of the bill that incentivizes that kind of collaboration.”
That evening, Murphy hosted a public hearing at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven to gauge the public’s opinion of the bill.
According to the New Haven Register, “the bill will next go before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.”