Former National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien was interviewed by Salem Radio Network Host Hugh Hewitt at the opening night of the Richard Foundation’s Grand Strategy Summit.
Full Transcript of the Interview:
Hugh Hewitt: Thank you. Good evening, everyone. Robert and I are old friends. So I’m going to call him Robert not Mr. Ambassador. But I want to begin by asking him the first day that I visited him and you were in the West Wing and your national security adviser office after you had come over from State. The first thing you said to me, I don’t know if you remember this. I have Henry Kissinger to thank for this office. So why don’t you tell that story and also your relationship with Dr. Kissinger since we just heard from him.
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Thank you Hugh, and it’s great to be here with you. And Jim, thank you for the kind introduction. I hope everyone realizes how special tonight is having just had Henry speak to us. You’ve just been part of history. I mean, it’s, it’s really something remarkable. And you’re gonna tell your kids and your grandkids that you heard Henry Kissinger talk about strategy, and talk about what he did as national security adviser and Secretary of State. So I was very fortunate. I spent time with most of my predecessors and, and they were all very, very kind and offering advice and help and that sort of thing. My first meeting in the new office, I think I took office on a Wednesday, Condi Rice flew in and came to see me on a Sunday. I think it’d been her first time back in the office for many years. And we sat and chatted, it was somewhat surreal to be sitting there with Condi Rice. And in her old office, and we got done talking. She gave me a lot of great advice. And she said, When you see Henry, when are you going to see Henry? And I said, I’ll see Henry next week. And she said thank him for the office. And I said, Okay, why am I thanking him for the office, and she goes, he’ll tell you the story. And so I was up in New York, for the UNGA, Henry walked out. I went to see him at his home apartment, he walked out and first thing he said was “Good job on Pottinger who was my deputy who I announced. And the next thing he said is, you and I are the only to face this. Let me talk to you. And of course that was the the impeachment issue because President Trump was on the verge of being impeached at the time. So he gave me some great counsel on and shared his wisdom with me. And I said, I want to thank you for the office, Condi recommended that I express my appreciation and he said they all do. I said, Okay, I said, Well, what happened? I won’t imitate Henry the rest of the time. Don’t do justice. But he said, Well, I got to the office, and they had me in the basement of the West Wing. And he said that was unsatisfactory. And I said, okay, so he said, So I walked to the main floor. And he said, there’s the oval, of course, that’s the President’s office. And he said there was a vice president’s office, I couldn’t take that. And the chief of staff the same thing. But he said this office held the press secretary. And I said, So how did you get it? I told him to depart. It was a matter of national security. I think it was Ron Ziegler at the time. And I said, What did he do? He said, he left. I said what about all his stuff? And he said I had the secret service remove it immediately. So Henry got that office and it’s been the national security advisor’s office ever since. It’s now kind of part of the the lore of the West Wing. And as I left office on January 20, 2021, Susan Rice another one of my predecessors had been named the Domestic Policy Council director, and so her office is up on the third floor. But she’d spent four years down into what we call Henry’s office. And I looked at Jake Sullivan, and I said, Look, Susan Rice is gonna have her eyes on this office. I said, Henry got it for us do not lose this office. And that was the last thing I said to Jake. He said, I’ll keep the office for us, Robert and and so that’s that’s the story but but what a great man and he became probably the person I spoke with my predecessors the most I talked to him probably every month, and benefited from his wisdom and guidance and counsel. Throughout the time I was in office.
Hugh Hewitt: I was not there, but I want to salute you and Jim Byron, the President of the Foundation for the gala you held in California on behalf of Dr. Kissinger for those who were not there, do you just want to quickly review what that dinner did to honor Dr. Kissinger?
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Well, we held dinner. And look, there’s a lot of things I think Charlie’s here and Ling. And in Jim Byron, I had very little to do with it other than showing up with with my wife, Lo-Marie. And we enjoyed the gala, like many of you who were there. And it was a special evening to honor Henry for his contributions to keeping our country safe and, and to American national security. And his contributions to President Nixon. And, you know, one of the things that’s amazing about Henry is he never fails to recognize, and he has a humility, and maybe that’s not always a word associated with Henry Kissinger. But he’s got the humility to realize what we all do in that job is it you’re there to staff, the president, and he always recognizes President Nixon’s legacy and President Nixon’s legacy and leadership as he did tonight And and he did so again, at the gala, I thought it was really a terrific, he gave a tour de force speech, or, you know, the good and great were there. And, and we were very, very blessed to have him come out to Yorba Linda, and a very special evening.
Hugh Hewitt: And before I turn to the substance, I just want to recognize for those of you did not hear earlier, when Jim was announcing Tricia Nixon Cox is with us tonight, and must be please stand up Tricia. With that and it must be wonderful and also somewhat unique to hear Dr. Kissinger talk about your father that way. And I was thinking about you as he was talking now to national security. It’ll be all day tomorrow. But I don’t get a national security adviser very often. Dr. Kissinger talked about China, and how the relationship has changed to the point. Will the Chinese Communist Party order an attack on Taiwan in the next two years?
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Look, it is the number one security threat we face as a country. Taiwan is very important for us for a number of reasons. First, geopolitically, it’s critical it’s it holds a key spot in the first island chain. And if that island gets taken over, it’s a large island if it gets taken over by China, it divides our allies in the north, Japan and South Korea, from our allies in the south, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines. Thailand our treaty allies but also other partners like Vietnam. Number two, it’s kind of like the cork in the champagne bottle, the Pacific, so if you pop Taiwan out, and give that to the Chinese, the PLA Navy can pour out into the entire Pacific, you know, from the coast might where I live in California, all the way up to Alaska to Hawaii, all the islands in the South, the islands, many of our grandfathers and great uncles fought for, they’ll have free reign in the Pacific. Number two. The island contains a chip manufacturer called TSMC. And a whole ecosystem of chip manufacturers associated with TSMC which makes 95% of the advanced computer chips that we use, not only in our military products, but in our cars and smartphones. If China takes Taiwan and takes those factories intact, which I don’t think we would ever allow, they become, they have a monopoly over chips the way OPEC has a monopoly or even more than the OPEC has a monopoly over oil. And number three, Taiwan’s democracy, Taiwan, the people of Taiwan share our values. It’s probably the most exciting story that’s happened with a democracy. In the last 30 or 40 years. They went from an authoritarian government to a full true democracy. The people there are wonderful, they share our values. It’s probably the closest place in Asia to the United States. I know many of you have visited Taiwan and and know what a great place it is and, and to see their their human rights, their democracy snuffed out, because Xi Jinping wants more glory for himself would be bad for the human spirit put aside, geopolitics, put aside the the tech issues, it would be a terrible thing for this world to have that light of democracy snuffed out. And yet that’s one of the reasons probably maybe the most motivating reason that the CCP and XI Jinping want to take out Taiwan, is because it shows the Chinese people just like West Berlin did to the German people and, and in some ways South Korea does for the North Koreans, that there’s another way that the Chinese people can, and the Chinese culture is compatible with democracy with capitalism with free enterprise with free men and free women. And so that that’s a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party that they they can’t continent, and they want to destroy Taiwan. So for a number of reasons, Taiwan is critical as to your question about when China would attack, Admiral Phil Davidson our former commander of Indo PACOM the combatant commander there said he thought it was an eight year window he thought 2028 2029 was the limit at which Xi would seek to attack. I went on TV recently, maybe a year ago on Larry Kudlow’s show and I said I think the Davidson window has shrunk. I think it’s down to two years. I think they’re gonna move because they perceive not necessarily accurately, but they perceive American to be weak right now. And they don’t want a new president to come in. They don’t want to Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump to return or Mike Pompeo in office at the time that they they seek to coerce the reunification with Taiwan. So I think having watched Afghanistan, and some of the moves we’ve made the lack of energy independence that we have, and some of the other failures of this administration. They believe they have a very narrow window to to make a move on Taiwan. I hope I’m wrong. I pray that I’m wrong. But but it’s probably the biggest national security threat we face as a country right now, Hugh.
Hugh Hewitt: When you and Secretary Pompeo convene the Nixon seminar monthly, moderated by Mary Kissel, who I think is over here. Hello, Mary. You often talk about China, but I have not yet heard it discussed. How do we deter? Can we deter China from any aggression?
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: So, again, I’m not as complex a strategist as Henry Kissinger is, and I’m a little more simple. I don’t feel too bad about that, because I spoke with Jim Baker recently. And Secretary Baker. We’re talking about Henry and he said, Well, Henry didn’t think that he thought that I was too practical and, and what I think he is not very complicated. Henry also said that Jim was a promising young man and had a big future ahead of him. But look, peace through strength works. And it works for the Chinese and I saw it we were in office. We saw it from with President Nixon, we saw with President Reagan, or we saw with President Trump. A strong America deters our adversaries because they don’t want to lose and with with authoritarians and dictators and tyrants, if they lose a war, they go out the side door doesn’t end well for them. And so what we can do is rebuild our Navy, rebuild our Air Force, make sure that General Berger is doing a great job with the Marine Corps with his new littoral combat regiments that are being fielded soon in the South Pacific. One of the things that we worked on very hard over the last two years of the Trump administration was making sure we had hypersonic weapons to counter the Chinese hypersonic weapons. Those will be deployed in the next year or two. But but a strong America will deter China. It’s paradoxical, but weakness or even perceived weakness, an appeasement, actually invites aggression because our adversaries believe there’s an opportunity to make a move and to get away with it. And so we’ve got to take a very strong position. And the Taiwanese have to play their part as well. The Taiwanese like the Germans, like some of our other allies, have gone a long time coasting on the security guarantees of big brother, America, all of you the taxpayers of this great country. And they’ve managed to have a low defense budget because they knew America would would have their back. We still need to have Taiwan’s back, but Taiwan needs to move up. They’re talking about going to 2% of their budget for defense spending. They need to go to four or five or 6% Given China’s across the street from them. And Taiwan is gonna have to play its part as well.
Hugh Hewitt: One related question this morning for those of you read the Washington Post, Senator Rubio reelected on Tuesday, Mike Gallagher is a protege of Ambassador O’Brien, on the Scott Walker, reelected on Tuesday, Mike Gallagher is a protege of Ambassador O’Brien, on the Scott Walker campaign, co-authored a piece about Tiktok, in which it says the United States is locked in a new Cold War with the Chinese Communist Party one that senior military advisors warned could turn hot over Taiwan at any time, yet millions of Americans increasingly rely on TikTok, a Chinese social media app exposed to the influence of the CCP to consume the news, share content and communicate with friends. Now, I’d like your thoughts on that, on TikTok, specifically, but I’ve told my daughter, my grandkids can’t be on it ever, because it’s just a file creator for the CCP. But we also have to keep our Tech Edge without letting them run away with our economy. So how do you balance the need to keep Chinese tech out and American tech up without crippling American tech or allowing them into anti competitive practices?
Hugh Hewitt: Let me play off of something Dr. Kissinger said about President Nixon, which is it was President Nixon’s view that vis a vie China and Russia, we’d be really closer to the Soviet Union and to China than they were to each other. That’s an iteration of Lord Salisbury he always be with the weakest power in Europe. We’re now not. How do we get back to where we are at least closer to one of those two, or drive them apart?
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Well, look, it’s gonna be very hard for us to get closer to China, because we tried that once we had this idea that if we turned a blind eye to Chinese intellectual property theft, if we let them move all the manufacturing out of America and move it to China, if we if we turned a blind eye to their human rights violations, whether it was the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or that the annexation of Tibet or the extinguishing of democracy in Taiwan, or excuse me, in Hong Kong, the threats against Taiwan, if we just let all that happen, the Chinese would get rich at our expense but they’d become more liberal, they become more democratic, they become more like us. I mean, I remember I’m old enough to remember when Thomas Friedman used to write in the New York Times, you know, and it was always I talked to a taxi driver in Singapore, and he is so impressed with the Chinese. And then it would go on to, you know, if I could be, you know, if I could be dictator for a day like in China, we can have high speed rail in California. Unfortunately, we’ve got a better columnist, Josh Rogen over there who’s, who’s been one of the one of the few people who’s been willing to shine the light at the Washington Post using his platform there on human rights abuses, and what’s happened in China. And thank you, Josh, God bless you for for your courageous reporting. And, of course, he’s surrounded by two of the guys who wrote the best books, Michael Pillsbury and Bridge Colby, who wrote great books on China. That’s a dangerous table to be at. So probably, it probably doesn’t help that I’m sitting next to him. It’s we’re a little bit of target for China tonight. But they love they love Dr. Kissinger. So I don’t think they’d be I don’t think they’d ruin ruin the night. But look, the idea that we’re going to somehow get closer to China, and China’s going to become more like us, just turned out to be a naive hope. And, and look, one of the things that’s charming and wonderful about America is we have hope, and we aren’t naive sometimes. And, and we did a lot for China. And it didn’t didn’t pan out, we need to recognize it. Now, when it comes to Russia, I mean, what do you say about the Russians, they’re just difficult. I mean, they’re engaged in war crimes in Ukraine, trying to outdo the Chinese with their genocide in Xinjiang But the Russians better watch out for the Chinese. Because one of the things that Xi Jinping has made very clear, is that he’s going to recover every inch of territory, that China during what he calls a century of humiliation when Western powers imposed unfair treaties on China. And probably the most unfair of all of them, is the 1860 convention of Peking or the Treaty o Peking, which, by the way, is that that treaty, the Chinese version of it, is in the National Museum in Taiwan and Taipei. The Nationals took it with them when they evacuated Beijing, that gave Vladivostok and vast swathes of territory in Russia to China. And don’t think for a minute that the Chinese don’t know that. And they aren’t, they’re not going to come especially for a weakened Russia, for that land. And we pointed that out to the Russians on many occasions, and certainly the Russians are much weaker than the Chinese. What they’ve got to do is get rid of this, stop this adventure in in Ukraine and move those troops back to the eastern border. Are they going to find Xi Jinping his appetite only be wetted by Taiwan And he’s going to come for Vladivostok and large swaths of of what’s now Siberia, eastern Russia. And I think that’s one way we can hopefully bring the Russians back to some reality is to let them know they face a very serious threat there.
Hugh Hewitt: Director Wray, Attorney General Barr, Secretary Pompeo, the Vice President and you gave a series of speeches. Would you recap, it’s a great setting for the Grand Strategy Summit because it was an actual exercise in grand strategy. Would you explain what happened that very few people recall because it was a laying out of a blueprint.
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: So a lot of you remember the long memo, Kennan’s long memo about Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union and the challenge that would present to the United States. In the spring of 2020, it really became clear that we were facing an existential threat as a nation, Hugh, posed by the Communist Party of China. And I want to make it clear, many of you have been there, the Chinese people, and many you have been to Hong Kong and Singapore and, and Taiwan, the Chinese people are terrific, they’re hardworking, they’re smart as heck. They’re a lot like us as Americans, they’re ambitious. They’re their family, people. They’ve got wonderful traditions, they’ve got a society that’s, that’s 1000s of years old. There’s much to be admired in China among the Chinese people. But the Chinese Communist Party is a totalitarian institution that’s putting into place for the first time in human history, far more than than the Stasi ever could have dreamed of in East Germany, a surveillance society and an a method to have total control over their people. And it’s not just over their people, they want to extend it, it’d be bad enough that if that was China, they want to extend it to us. So if the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, puts out a tweet that the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t like, they threaten to shut down the entire NBA. And then you see you got LeBron James and others kowtowing to the Chinese, that said, hey, that’s okay. We didn’t really mean what we said about Xinjiang or about Hong Kong, just do your thing. It’s all good. Please keep paying the license fees to show our games. The Chinese tried to do it with with Top Gun Maverick they wanted to have the the Japan and Taiwan patches on Maverick’s bomber jacket, you know, digitally removed. Fortunately, there was enough of an uproar about it that when the movie was released, at least in the US, it had the the correct patches on Pete Mitchell’s jacket. But they want to extend their reaches into all aspects of society. So we recognize this threat. And we decided to break up our views and talk about it in a series of speeches around the country. And so my speech was about the the the Marxist Leninist ideology that animates the Chinese Communist Party. This is not a place like Ray Dalio and others that are just again, they should know better. These are smart men and women. But say things like Well, it’s a form of democracy. It’s not a form of democracy. Xi Jinpeng is Stalin’s heir. And when you go to the if you go to the People’s Liberation Army Museum, there’s a massive statue of Stalin, they worship Stalin, they think Stalin was the, you know, the gold standard for leaders. And so I outlined the problem, the ideology that motivated them, and it was a heavily footnoted speech. And it all referred back in most cases to Xi Jinping thought his book. So when I gave my speech, and I said, this is a Marxist Leninist country and party and it’s Stalin is the father to Xi. People got very upset here and said, That’s provocative. What was interesting is no one in China criticized my speech. They criticized Chris Wray’s speech, they criticized Pompeo’s speech, they didn’t criticize my speech, because everything I said came out it was was out of their own mouth. And they didn’t want to be seen as criticizing Marx, Lenin, Stalin, or Xi Jinping. So they just said it was anti China. But they didn’t, they didn’t specifically criticize it. Pompeo gave a speech on kind of the overall challenge that we face, and how we can respond to it. Chris Wray talked about the theft of intellectual property, and called it the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, from from the United States going to China, which we did maybe think of, most of you have probably been to Rome. You’ve seen that Trajan column, and it’s got the wagons on loading all the loot from Decia that trades taken from the you know, what’s now Romania, and brought back to Rome and kept the Empire going for another 100 years with all the treasure he brought back. And that was the Romans celebrated that. I mean, you can imagine a column to the Chinese leadership from the last 30 years with computer desks and computers and aircraft and everything. They’ve the phones and everything they’ve stolen from us, from our entrepreneurs, from our innovators, taken back to China, deprived us of the value of that wealth, and created this great wealth that they’re now using for massive military buildup. So Chris Wray talked about that. Bill Barr talked about the the rule of law and what there is no rule of law in modern day China, the Vice President gave a bit of an overview to kick us off. So the idea was, if you take those speeches together, they’re actually published in a little book, I think, called Trump on China, that we put out towards the end of the administration. It’s a small pamphlet, but the idea was if you took those speeches together, and I think we gave all of them except for the Vice President’s speech was was here in Washington, all the others, we went around the country so I gave my speech in Phoenix, and Mike Pompeo came out to the Nixon library with you, Hugh, and gave his speech with you in Yorba Linda. I think Bill Barr went to Minnesota or maybe it was Chris Wray. But one of them went to the Midwest. The idea is we’d go around the country and give these speeches and then taking taken together, you know that there was a blueprint of A: what China was doing and B: how we can respond. And, you know, unfortunately, it was during the political campaign. So I think some of the noise that the campaign and COVID took it took away from that effort. But I think all those speeches, stand the tests of time, if they were read today, a couple of years later.
Hugh Hewitt: I asked a former senior military official this week a question and he answered, that gets into classified information very quickly. And I know you’ll be very aware of that. But my question is based on Director Wray’s speech last week, we’re making opening one new espionage case a day about the CCP, were you as astonished as I was, as a young DOJ assistant with helping Bill Smith do the American surveillance stuff and I first saw it, I was just astonished at how much the Soviets were doing. And it appears as though the CCP dwarfs their efforts.
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Like if you’re gonna watch the Americans, you know, with what the Russians are doing, and Keri Russell, and look, what the Russians were doing was child’s play compared to what the Chinese are doing. I mean, you can’t even put it, you can’t even compare them. I mean, so everything you saw back in the Reagan years, and we thought the Russians were [inaudible]. The Chinese Communist Party, their Ministry of State Security, is infiltrated all over this country. They’re infiltrated into into some of our biggest businesses, especially on Wall Street, and in Hollywood, the gaming industry, because there’s so there’s I said that a lot of houses in the Hamptons, that were built with with Chinese blood money, and and folks are willing to mouth the CCP talking points. I don’t know how they get the talking points. But they’re the exact talking points that are circulated in China for the CCP members. They are mouthed by a lot of American business people here. They’re spies everywhere. They’re in our universities. We had at one point we expelled I think 2500 Chinese students who are studying for advanced degrees here, because they were all members of the Chinese military, there are PLA officers PLA Navy officers, PLA Air Force officers, and they’d lied on their applications and their visa applications and disavowed any connection with the Chinese military. So we expelled them all. The worst part of it, though, was, at one point, there were more Chinese military officers studying for advanced degrees here in America then there were US military officers studying for advanced degrees here in America. So I mean, it’s we’ve got a big challenge here. There’s been some continuity with the Biden administration, on our policies on China, and I appreciate that. But one of the things they did they shut down some of the DOJ and FBI programs that were targeting this espionage on the idea that somehow it was you know, it didn’t it didn’t work with their identity politics. But one thing I guarantee you is patriotic Chinese Americans, and there’s, we’ve got no better immigrant class and no better people than Chinese Americans who are here. I come from California. And unfortunately, my good friend Lanhee Chen ran for Controller and lost, but we’ve got such a great group of Asian American and Chinese American immigrants here. They don’t want the CCP here anymore than anyone else does. And and we need to use those those immigrants to help us and they’re the ones that left China because they don’t want to be part of that total surveillance society. You know, they’re the ones that can be helping us root out this Chinese infiltration of the country. But it’s pervasive.
Hugh Hewitt: I want to move to Iran and Russia. The week started interesting with me, I interviewed once and future prime minister Bibi Netanyahu for an hour because his new book Bibi, My Story just came out. And he’s only allowed to promote it when he’s not prime minister. So he’s got like, a two week window. So I read this book in 48 hours and spent an hour talking with him. The most things that stuck out at me is that Iran has only not been working on a nuclear program for the one year following President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. They stopped for one year, and now they are close with Russia. And that is a deeply, the drones are killing Ukrainians as we speak. What do we what do we do about that? JCPOA 2.0. That is attempting to be birthed even as we speak in Geneva?
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Yeah. So one of the things that there’s been a lot of continuity between the the Trump foreign policy and the Biden foreign policy, and I appreciate that, but one area where there’s no continuities with the JCPOA. And that’s the the Joint Comprehensive memorandum of understanding that we had between the agreement of understanding between ourselves and the Iranians and a couple of European powers back during the Obama administration. And the idea was, we’re going to free up $150 billion in sanctions relief, we’re going to pay millions or over a billion dollars for hostages, we’re going to give Iran all this money, and they’re going to become a responsible stakeholder in the Middle East. They’re gonna help us in the Middle East. In fact, they’re gonna help us get out of the wars in the Middle East and they’re gonna help bring peace and and prosperity to the region. And you’ll remember President Obama’s Inaugural Address. He said, If you’ll unclench your fist, we’ll reach out our hand. And we’ll be partners in this. Now, how did that work out? They got paid for the hostages over $1,000,000,000, 400 million of it in cash, which they’ll split up like a bunch of gangsters. And they took they took four more hostages to replace the ones they gave us. They took the $150 billion in sanctions relief. And do you think it went to the middle class of Iran, to help the people of Iran, it went to the Houthis, and their war, their civil war in Yemen, it went to Kata-ib Hezbollah and their civil war in Iraq, and went to Hezbollah, to hijack the Government of Lebanon and really destroy the Government of Lebanon. It went to Hamas that went to for suicide bombers, all of that money was spent to promote Iranian hegemony in the region and terrorist activity. It was a terrible deal. And the Iranians kept working on their nuclear program, and hid all their documents. The Israelis had a very stunning and, and daring intelligence operation that went and got all that information, and brought it back to to Tel Aviv and it was one of the probably the greatest operation in the history of Mossad. So, look, the Iranians don’t respect the JCPOA was such a great deal for them. Of course, they’d want to go back into it. But they knew that the Biden administration was so desperate to restore the JCPOA. And I never understood it because it didn’t work. I mean, it was demonstrably a terrible deal. We all said it at the time. And instead of learning from it, you know that the folks that are negotiating, they all were involved in it the first time. And I think it’s like an article of religious faith. I mean, President Obama didn’t have many accomplishments, he had one foreign policy accomplishment, that was the JCPOA, if you can call it accomplishment, and he had Obamacare. And so I think they’re just intent on restoring the JCPOA as a gift and an homage to to Barack Obama. And they’re doing it with that using the Russians, who we are opposed to in Ukraine, to negotiate the deal for us. So they are using the Russian ambassador to negotiate the deal. Iranian drones, as you pointed out, are killing Ukrainians right and left and taken out their power systems, so that they’re going to freeze this winter. And the Iranians still have a bunch of American hostages, and yet we’re begging the Iranians to reenter. And the Iranians are tough negotiators. I’ve negotiated with the Iranians. It’s like we walked into the rug shop and said, I need that rug, and I’ll do whatever, I’ll pay whatever it takes to get it. And what’s the rug shop owner gonna say? It’s like, Well, that one’s not for sale. I’m sorry that that’s a family heirloom, you know, I can’t do that. But we’ll give you anything you want for that rug. And they know we’re desperate to reenter the JCPOA for no demonstrable benefit to the US or our national security or to Israel. And yet we’re begging them to rejoin it. And it’s probably the greatest failure. It’s right up there with Afghanistan of the Biden administration foreign policy. Unfortunately.
Hugh Hewitt: I’m coming to Afghanistan in a moment. But since you brought up hostages for those of you don’t recall, Ambassador O’Brien before he became a national security adviser was the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs. Since you left office, more hostages have been taken, including a basketball player in Russia. What do you think about, you helped get a rapper out of somewhere? I can’t remember what that was. But how do we get a basketball star out of Russia without doing damage to our national interest? But getting her home?
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Yeah, so it’ll be on my grave. It doesn’t matter that was National Security Advisor, husband, father, it’s gonna say I got it ASAP Rocky out of Sweden. That’s my highest. Henry Kissinger got, you know, dealt with the Yom Kippur War and had the Paris Peace Accords and had all this other. On my gravestone will say ASAP Rocky released from Sweden. Of course, it’s probably the reason I was national security adviser so I shouldn’t say so. I owe ASAP one and I owe the Swedes one for taking him. Look, all these hostage cases are different. Certainly ASAP was a unique and unusual one. I would go into court in Sweden and there was a radio reporter from Denmark. It was kind of the Howard Stern of Denmark. Who would yell at me Mr. Ambassador, are you sending the Navy SEALs to rescue ASAP Rocky? Are you moving a carrier to the Baltic to threaten Sweden? T get ASAP Rocky out. No, but maybe that’s a good idea. Bring the carrier in. We got him out fortunately, that week, because in some ways, my job was pretty easy to be the negotiator. Because if you didn’t have to negotiate with me, you got to negotiate with my boss. And they were always worried about what President Trump might do. And so I looked like the better option for those negotiations, especially on the ASAP case. But look, they’re all different cases. Sometimes we do a military rescue, which is was my preferred course of action where we could. That wasn’t always possible because of where the hostages were held, especially if they were held as a wrongful detainee by a state it was always very difficult to do a military operation in most cases. With non state actors, that was our first approach. But the Brittney Griner situation like, the Biden administration has a very good SPEHA which sounds like a Dr. Seuss name for my old job for the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Roger Carstens who worked with us and he stayed over into the Biden administration. The hostage families really wanted him to stay and I’m glad he did. And he’s he’s actually got some some real success especially recently in Venezuela bringing, I think, seven Americans home and I take my hat off to Roger, he’s done a terrific job. And we’ll get Brittney Griner home. The Russians want Victor Bout, who’s an arms dealer and kind of Lord of War type guy, terrorist. We got Victor we after a long time, the FBI was able to get them in a sting operation. That’s basically the deal. But the Russians were very careful. And they selected Brittney Griner, in my view, because she covered all of the demographics of the Biden coalition. She’s a African American lesbian, obviously female. And so it puts a lot of pressure on on the Biden folks to bring her home. And that gives the Russians a lot of leverage knowing that they have to bring her home knowing that LeBron James has come out and said she shouldn’t come back to America because we haven’t done enough to get her back. Al Sharpton has complained about why Brittney Griner is not home. So the Russians know they have some leverage here. And again, as I said earlier, they’re tough negotiators. Henry will tell you this. And so they’re gonna really they’re gonna squeeze as much as they can. But I do think Britney, I think the outlines of a deal are there, I think Brittany will come home at some point soon. So I don’t think she’ll spend 10 years in a Russian penal colony. But I also think that Putin is really sticking it to President Biden right now, with the captivity.
Hugh Hewitt: We have 12 minutes til 8. So I want to finish with three questions about what I hope is the new Republican majority in the House, it does look that way. We don’t know maybe by the time we leave, we’ll pick up another seat. And that might be next year if we wait for Arizona and California, but And I’m serious about next year in California. Speaker designet McCarthy has pledged in the coming to America to establish a select committee on China. And if it is, I hope they put our friends Gallagher and Waltz on it, who are members of the Nixon seminar and basically get Dr. Pillsbury and Josh and Mary, everyone. What should that committee do if they put that forward.
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Yeah. So we tried this a couple of years ago. In fact, Kevin McCarthy, leader McCarthy, had a deal with Speaker Pelosi, to have a bipartisan committee on commission on China or committee on China, in the House. And the idea was to look at the challenge posed by China, and then to come up with what can America do to compete against China, and to deter China from invading Taiwan and further threatening US national security interest? Unfortunately, at the last minute, Speaker Pelosi pulled out of that deal, I think she felt that it would have favored President Trump in the presidential campaign. And that’s something we really have to get beyond. Are there just too many areas where the parties need to work together. And we need to get beyond kind of the rank politics when it comes to dealing with our foreign adversaries. And go back to the days where, you know, kind of our disputes stopped at the water’s edge, and we were united overseas. And that may be naive and too much to ask for, but we need to get there. But I think that the Commission will look at, you know, what we need to primarily what we need to do, to reinvigorate a peace through strength approach to China. What do we need to do with our Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army, Space Force, our intelligence services, to deter China militarily? I think that’ll be area number one, I think area number two, what do we do on the espionage issue? How do we protect our secrets, our intellectual property from theft and [inaudible] by the Chinese? I think they’ll look at the origin of COVID, which we never got to the bottom of and which clearly came from China, which came from the lab. There’s no question on this. There was this whole idea even early on that if you said it came from a lab, that was terrible, because it was a Trump virus on the China virus. China has a very serious public health issue. We’ve had COVID, we’ve had avian flu, we’ve had swine flu, we’ve had, I think five or six different pandemics come from China since 2000. When I was in the Bush administration at the UN, we were dealing I think, was avian flu at the time, and everyone was making a run on Tamiflu to buy it and stock it up. There’s a public health issue in China. And the idea that well, no, no, it came from a wet market. So it’s okay. I mean, that’s not okay. I mean, the fact that it came from market where people consume exotic animals alive and spread disease from there, that’s not that’s not a positive for your country. And, but I think they’ll find that it came from a lab. And so I think we need to get the origins of COVID. And then I think we need to go to the Chinese and say, You’re the source of all these pandemics and plagues that are hitting the world. You need to cooperate. You need to stop covering this stuff up and you need to institute proper controls of your labs, you know, have a little cleanliness, and you’ve got to deal with the health issues at these wet markets and other places. because the world can’t afford another COVID coming from from China. And so I think getting to the bottom of, you know, the origins of COVID is something the commission do. So I think there are a whole number of things, I think they’ll look at the genocide that’s taking place in Xinjinag. I mean, we always say never again, and what I thought was most tone deaf thing I’ve ever seen, and just the lack of understanding of the world. The Chinese have these vocational rehabilitation camps for the Uighur men, they leave the women to be there and move Han males into the homes with the Uighur women, which is pretty despicable when you think about it, but these vocational schools are to teach them how to work in the workforce. I mean, they might as well put Arbeit macht frei on the sign leading into the camp. I mean, they’re so tone deaf on this. It’s a terrible thing. So I think that I think we’ll look at the genocide is taking place again and put some meaning behind. Never again, if that’s if that we really care about it. So I think there’s just a plethora of issues that the Commission will cover. I think it will be bipartisan this time, because I don’t think that Democrats will want to not be on a commission that’s set up by the majority. And I think it’ll have some legs.
Hugh Hewitt: Let me conclude by asking you as someone who has worked three different jobs for President Bush, two different jobs for President Trump is the chairman of the Nixon Foundation, you get along with everyone in our party and our party being Republicans. We’re both Republicans. I’m glad there are Democrats here, we’re not going to ask you to leave. But the new caucus will be small in majority. So everyone will have a veto. And some of them are isolationist in a way that we haven’t seen since the 30s. How do you persuade when it comes down to beginning with Ukraine? And I’m not calling JD, an isolationist. He’s a friend. He’s very suspicious of additional aid to Ukraine, and I’m urging additional aid to Ukraine. What’s your advice to the Speaker and through the Speaker to the rest of the Speaker Designate and and to the rest of the caucus about how they conduct foreign policy as a caucus? Because it’s not of one mind.
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: Yeah, so it’s a great question. And I think one of the things we need to focus on for some of our friends that are more isolationist or might be you know, folks like Rand Paul, who are more skeptical of spending money on our military, that number one, we have to be efficient, we have to root out waste, fraud and abuse in the Pentagon. And we’ve got to make sure there’s no waste, fraud, abuse and ill activity taking place in places like Ukraine. The Russians have captured some of our equipment. They have captured some of our stingers and javelins. Hopefully they weren’t sold to the Russians, I don’t have any reason to believe they were, I’m sure they were captured spoils of war. But the Russians are now sharing those pieces of equipment with the Iranians who are smart people, and they’ll figure out how to duplicate them. And then we’ll face our warfighters will face our own weapons. And so we need to make sure that, you know, as we extend this aid that we do it in a way that’s responsible, and helps Ukraine but also protects our national security. But I think there are two things to emphasize for some of the more isolationist members of the caucus. Number one, they want to avoid foreign entanglements. The best way to avoid foreign entanglements is to have a strong US military. We didn’t have a war under Ronald Reagan, under a piece thourgh strength president. We had the military operation in Grenada, which was really more of a hostage rescue for the medical students, you may recall, but we didn’t go to war under Reagan, we didn’t start a new war under President Trump. Because when America is strong, and our adversaries perceive us to be strong, we can avoid war. And I think that’s something that will appeal to some of the more concerned members of the caucus that might have an isolationist tendency. I think the second thing that really appeals to him, Hugh, is burden sharing among our allies. And so one of the most controversial things I was involved in, in the Trump administration and turned out to be one of our great successes. For many years, and since, in fact, I went back and pulled the old campaign literature going back to the Reagan 76 Run. Every major American presidential candidate, said Europe has to share the burden with us in the defense of Europe. Now, in those early days in the 70s and 80s. It was defending against the Soviet Union. Europe didn’t want to didn’t want to share their burden with us. They wanted us to defend them while they’ve worked on their economic miracle. And again, why not right? That’s like what the Germans I was joking and said, Angela Merkel had the best German first foreign policy of any country in the world. They got they got cheap imports from Russia raw materials, they sold expensive finished goods to China, and they had America defend them. I mean, if you’re German, what’s not to like about that. And when we tried to close some bases and move some of our forces to the Pacific, I got frantic calls from from my colleague, the German national security adviser. And he said, if you take out the American base, you know, pubs will close car dealers will close. I mean, it was like a BRAC round I had a congressman callimng me you know from a you know, someplace we’re going to close a US base I said, well, well there’s a simple solution that put a German military base in there you know, spend your own money to prop up those communities and stop taking the American taxpayer money to do it. We want to be with their with as a partner, but you’ve got a burden share with us. And I think, so when we went to the NATO negotiations President Trump was very tough on NATO. Do you remember that, Hugh? He said maybe we should withdraw. Or maybe we should only have an Article Five commitment to the countries that pay 2%. But he was it was it was relatively it was unorthodox language talking about NATO, I grant you that, and the establishment that what with what we call the foreign policy blob here in Washington, they were hand wringing and weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and satin sackcloth and ashes. And I started negotiating with Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, who’s one of the great statesmen in the world today there, we have a dearth of great statesmen, but but Jen’s is one of them, and yet is understood the fact that the American taxpayer couldn’t be asked to foot the bill to defend Europe, which has an economy as big as America or bigger. And so, you know, President Trump made my life much easier during those negotiations, because as you heard what the President said, Now, Jen’s What are you gonna do when you go pass a cup of the Europeans? What can you get me so I can take it to President Trump and try and get a deal done? Well, we ultimately struck a deal. That wasn’t as much as we liked, but it was $400 billion in additional NATO spending over 10 years, nothing like that ever taken place before. It was an incredibly successful summit we had, we went from four countries paying 2% of their GDP, for their own defense to 11 countries. And part of that was, I don’t want to take too much more of everyone’s time, because you want to go home and get to bed. But we set up a lunch the last day, and we call it the 2% Club. And if you’re paying 2%, your head of state got to come to lunch with us. And President Trump was gonna host the lunch. But if you weren’t paying 2%, you didn’t get to come to lunch. And we had two countries actually come to the 2% mark, to get the invitation for lunch. I mean, it’s like it’s like high school, you know, if you want to be the cool kids table, you got to pay your 2% If you don’t, and we had one country that was very close to paying 2%, but wasn’t quite there. Important ally of America and people I love very much but but they were just desperate to get at the table advice and you’re like a 1.96%, you got to come up with that extra point 0.4%. And they couldn’t do it. And they didn’t come to the lunch and they were a little upset. They didn’t have their lunch. But the point is, you know, if we can get our allies to burden share with us. And you know, we had a great opportunity to do that with the French in the Sahel and West Africa, where they put 5000 troops in to fight the jihadist ISIS, we put in 900 American enablers, those are the type of deals that we want for the United States. I think our isolationist swing, will look and see if our European allies care as much about Europe as we do. If they care as much about Ukraine in their backyard as we care about Ukraine. I think that’ll be a way to help, you know, bring them into the fold on on some of these issues.
Hugh Hewitt: One last question about the greatest achievement of the Trump administration, at least in my opinion, Benjamin Netanyahu shares it, he wrote in his book, it was nothing short of miraculous that had happened, and the after effects of the Abraham Accords. What do you think the Biden administration is doing with this gift that you left them, this revolutionary development in the Middle East?
Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien: So look, I think they’re doing a decent job with it. The first week, someone at the State Department decided that to take the change the name from the Abraham Accords, to the diplomatic normalization agreement or something, because it was probably too religious for them. And the problem I had is the Abrahm in Israel and Abraham accords with the Abrahm accords with the Arab allies. They weren’t gonna change the name. So that name took and took hold in the Middle East, and it’s been durable. And they basically said, This is a peace between us the Israelis and the United Arab Emirates and the Bahrainis and the Moroccans and the Sudanese, and the Kosovars. All basically said, Hey, we’re in on this thing. We’re all in, we’re moving forward. So it doesn’t really whether you like President Trump having done it or not. They’re the Abraham accords. And they’re making a difference in the region. They’re helping us put a united front against Iran, they brought peace to the region. I mean, you know, talking about TikTok, I’m no fan of TikTok, obviously. But if you go on TikTok or Instagram, and you’ll see bar mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs taking place in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, who would have thought that would have ever happened. And so they’ve been durable. And I think the Biden administration has recognized it, and they’re working on the Abraham Accords and moving them forward and supporting them. What we don’t have, though, is the momentum to get more countries involved. And we had 2,3,4 countries kind of lined up ready to, to join the accords including some very big countries. And that would have been good for the region and good for the world. And then a couple more out of the region, major Muslim powers out of the region. And I think that’s been lost because to get a deal like that done, you have to have a point person and whether with the Vietnam, the Paris Peace Accords, you had to have a Henry Kissinger on it every day. We had Jared Kushner, we had Mike Pompeo, we had Steven Mnuchin and I played a small role in the accords and many others and it was a priority the administration. It I don’t think it’s I think the Biden ministration. appreciates the accords. But I don’t think it’s a priority to add additional countries. I think all the work that went into the Abraham Accords, in this administration has been channeled into the JCPOA. And trying to get a peace deal with Iran, and which will basically allow in two years for Iran to be a recognized nuclear power. I mean, it’s just mind boggling. But I think all the Abraham Accord effort went into the JCPOA. And, and we’ve lost some momentum there. But I think the accords are durable. I was just in the region. I just saw Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the final weeks of his campaign and he was confident he’d take over, he won, he’s got my congratulations. And he’s a great man and again like, Henry, a part of history. And I was fortunate to get to know and I think he’ll push to move the accords forward with other countries, even if the US isn’t there. You know what, we’ll see how it works.
Hugh Hewitt: I want you to join me please in thanking the Ambassador for joining us tonight. We will turn it over to Mr. Byron, I think and we will see you here tomorrow for more of this all day. Thank you very much.
Watch the interview here:
About the Grand Strategy Summit:
Fifty years after President Nixon’s historic diplomatic trips to China and the Soviet Union, great power competition has returned. To address America’s challenges on the world stage —only days after the hotly anticipated Midterm Election results— the Richard Nixon Foundation convened its inaugural Grand Strategy Summit: American Leadership in the 21st Century on November 10 and 11, 2022 at The Ritz Carlton, Washington D.C.
The Grand Strategy Summit is dedicated to establishing a consistent approach to a national (as opposed to a partisan) foreign policy, a long-term strategic direction for American statecraft —what President Nixon called “the long view.”
Considering the election results and the balance of power in Washington, summit participants discussed the pursuit of policies in America’s national interest, including how to manage the relationship with China as a major power in the 21st century, weigh the impact of ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine, and project Western influence in the Middle East.