There are few political careers more varied than James Webb’s. He served in Ronald Reagan’s administration — first as assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs, and then as secretary of the Navy from 1984 to 1988. After leaving politics to write, he returned in 2006 as the Democratic Party’s great veteran hope: a war hero and ex-Reagan official who opposed the Iraq War and never seemed weak doing it. He upset an incumbent to take a Senate seat in Virginia, and then, six years later, at the outset of an election he likely would have won, he retired from the Senate. No reelection campaign. No talk of higher office. He just seemed finished with Washington.
But in recent months, Webb has begun exploring a presidential campaign. "A strong majority of Americans agree that we are at a serious crossroads," he wrote in his announcement. "In my view the solutions are not simply political, but those of leadership. I learned long ago on the battlefields of Vietnam that in a crisis, there is no substitute for clear-eyed leadership."
I met with Webb, who was recovering from knee surgery, at his office in Northern Virginia. Our conversation ranged widely, but at the core of it I wanted to know two things: what would Webb actually want to get done as president? And what made him think, in this era of gridlock and polarization, that he would actually be able to accomplish any of it?
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How to lead amid polarization
Ezra Klein: The question I think everyone running for President in 2016 is going to face is, "How are you going to get it done?" Democrats saw Obama run on the idea that he would mobilize this new generation, that he would bring people together. The Obama candidacy in 2008 was very much a candidacy about making Washington work better, more smoothly. Washington works, at this point, worse than it has in a very long time. The structure of districts and gerrymandering has made it very unlikely that Democrats, even in a favorable election, will retake the House, so no Democratic president is going to have the kind of congressional majorities Obama had in 2009 and 2010.
So what is your answer — having served in a very paralyzed moment in Congress — to, "Yeah, that's a nice idea, but why should I believe you're going to get it done?"
Jim Webb: I think if there's one consistency in my professional life, it has been that I've gotten things done, and that people tend to trust what I say. In a lot of emails, people say, "I don't agree with you on this, I don't agree with that, but I know you mean it."
Even in a paralyzed Senate, when's the last time somebody got a major piece of legislation through? I look at the things we were able to do [in the Senate], and I'm very proud of them. When I look at the difficulty in some of the issues that have been brought forward in the last six or seven years, these are, in many cases, leadership questions.
President Obama had a tremendous amount of goodwill when he was first elected. I don't agree with the notion that he got all of this resistance automatically, simply because of external factors. He put health-care reform on the table at a time when we were in a major recession. It had been a big issue in the campaign, so there was a natural momentum to want to haul that through. But there was no bill. When George W. Bush was president, people would ask me about health-care reform, and I would say, having spent four years inside an administration, "If he wants that, he should put together a bill." Bob Dole famously said, "The president proposes, the Congress disposes." But there was no bill. The administration was sitting back, encouraging what became five different bills, three in the House and two in the Senate. It was very confusing, and it scared the American people.
It could have been done in a different way. I, quite frankly, would have figured a narrower bill, but an actual bill. There are counterarguments to that, and I know you're aware of them, where they were saying that the Clinton administration had put together a 1,100-page bill and it got ripped up. But you need a bill.
Ezra Klein: One thing I'd push you on this here is, if you become president, if anyone becomes president, they will become a much more polarizing figure than they are right now. I think the thing Obama learned, but also the thing that George W. Bush — the uniter, not the divider — learned before him, and the thing that Bill Clinton, the guy who was moderating the Democratic Party, learned before him is that you will just naturally become a much more polarizing figure.
All these people who feel like they trust what you say and that you say what you mean: if I had been sitting here with Senator Barack Obama in 2007, I think he could have talked a lot about how much Republicans seem to like him and how they respond to his message, and it would have been very compelling. You talk about being able to get things done in the Senate. The GI Bill you passed was a huge accomplishment. But your criminal justice reform didn't make it through a Republican filibuster.
Jim Webb: First of all, in terms of criminal justice, and these other issues, there are ways to succeed other than legislatively. When I started talking about criminal justice reform, I had people coming to me saying, "This is committing political suicide." We've turned this around to the point that it's one of the top three issues of the Conservative Political Action Conference. That would not have happened if you hadn't had somebody willing to stand up and take the hits, and be "soft on crime." Same with the shift toward Asia.
Leadership — taking the risk, putting the issues on the table — is something that's a little bit more than having an idea and sitting in a think tank, or getting somebody's idea from a think tank. I've got my own personal views. I have a long history of having shown that I can bring leadership to the table, starting in the Marine Corps many, many years ago as a rifle platoon and company commander. I think I understand a lot of this country in a way that my different experiences have helped me. I've been a sole proprietor all my life, other than the time that I've been in government as a writer of books and films, etc. I know what it's like to have to pay for this office and all my own travel. I’ve never worked on salary, other than in government.
A lot of the comments you hear right now are similar to what people were saying when Jimmy Carter was president. I remember people saying, "No one person can be president anymore." Everything was a negative. Reagan came in. He was a leader, whether people agreed with him or not. I know all my Democratic friends get mad when I say that I think Reagan was a leader. He ran, particularly in the first term, probably the best administration in my lifetime. Leadership makes a difference, not just ideas.
How should the president and Congress relate to one another?
Ezra Klein: One of the dimensions of your work that's always interested me is the focus on the proper relationship between the executive and the legislature. President Obama ran as a strong critic of President Bush's unilateral actions. In office, President Obama, I think, on the domestic side, with No Child Left Behind waivers and with the immigration action recently, has been aggressive in expanding presidential power. Do you think the presidency needs to be reined in, or do you think these kinds of expansion are a necessary response to increasing paralysis within the legislature?
Jim Webb: I would say, first of all, the difficulty with the Bush administration was the process of signing statements. Congress could actually pass legislation, and the Bush administration would sign the larger legislation but basically say, "OK, but we don't agree with that, and we don't agree with that, and we don't agree with that." It was kind of a soft veto. It was definitely saying, "We have the authority in the executive branch not to agree with what you just passed in the legislative branch."
The Obama administration, domestically and in foreign policy, has at least attempted to stretch the authority more directly. I think they've gotten in trouble, in many cases, by not thinking things through. Domestically, they've gotten more pushback than in foreign policy, but in foreign policy there is just as much cause for concern, in my view. When President Obama went to the climate change meetings in Copenhagen in the fall of 2009, the administration announced when he was getting ready to leave that he was going to come back with an internationally binding agreement. I think I was the only member of Congress who wrote a letter, and I did it on constitutional grounds, saying that the president does not have the power to bind the United States on an international agreement of this sort without the approval of Congress.
But my biggest concern with the Obama administration has been with the decision, unilaterally, to use force. In particular, Libya is a classic example that shows how uncontrolled the administration has become. I spoke about the situation in Libya before they used force, in hearings and on the Senate floor, and tried to get legislation considered. In 2012, nobody wanted to talk about it. The Republicans didn't want to talk about it because, overall, they were in favor of that sort of action. The Democrats didn't want to talk about it because they didn't want to embarrass the president in an election year.
Ezra Klein: From the perspective of a voter, campaign pronouncements do not often seem to be good predictors of future behavior on executive power. People run as critics of executive overreach, and then when they become president, a lot of the things that looked like presidential overreach to them before suddenly look like the only sensible way to move swiftly.
Take the example of Syria. There was the decision to go to Congress before striking Assad or capital weapons. That was fascinating, not just because it was done so abruptly, but because Congress so clearly did not want to weigh in. Congress was so clearly terrified at having to shoulder part of the burden there, and I found it striking — both in terms of the Obama administration's decision to try to go to Congress, which was unexpected, but also for what it showed about the degree to which Congress would prefer, it often seems, to not be involved in some of these harder calls.
Jim Webb: I wrote a piece in the National Interest called "Congressional Abdication," examining exactly what you're talking about — the history of the relationship between Congress and the president on the use of force, and my concerns about what had happened since 9/11. One of the points I made in there is what you just said, and that is that Congress, by and large, doesn't want to vote on a lot of this stuff. Foreign policy issues have become so much more complex since the end of the Cold War. But they need to. You need to move forward as a country on these issues.
We have the right to self-defense. The president has the right, in terms of using unilateral authority, when he sees that there is a clear issue with respect to international terrorism. But it has to be international terrorism. Other issues — and the Middle East is filled with them — should require that the president come to Congress. The classic example was Libya, because we had no treaties in place. We had no American forces at risk. There was nobody to rescue. The concept they were pushing was this doctrine of humanitarian intervention. That's something we may or may not decide to do, but there should be more than just the president making that decision.
The challenge of foreign policy in an interventionist era
Ezra Klein: There is a tremendous amount of anxiety about China's rise. Anxiety about their influence over other nations, both in Asia and increasingly in Africa. There is anxiety over the fact that they are soon to pass us as the largest economy in the world, if you don't believe they passed us already by some measures. How do you think people should feel about the rise of China?
Jim Webb: Power in that region has historically alternated between or among Japan, China, and Russia, to the detriment of the other countries whenever one has gotten too powerful.
We learned in the aftermath of World War II that we could provide stability to the region by maintaining a strong presence there. Japan receded back into its territory areas, but the European colonial powers basically withdrew as major power players, and the Soviet Union started expanding. When I was in the Pentagon in the 1980s, on any given day there were 25 Soviet Naval combatants at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. They had Backfire bombers and they had Bear reconnaissance aircraft there. Their Pacific fleet was their largest fleet. Then when the Soviet Union collapsed, China began expanding its economy and its military.
In 2012, my last year in the Senate, China actually created a new prefecture positioned near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam. Their territorial claim is 2 billion square kilometers. It's all of the South China Sea. Without the United States as, in many ways, a quiet ally, but also a definite military ally, I think you would see a different environment in the Pacific.
I say this because a lot of people say we're there to contain China. No — we're there to provide stability so these other economies can grow and governmental systems can change. Writ large, I think it's healthy to have a competitive and productive economic relationship with China. The difficulty I see, with respect to China, is that we are two fundamentally different governmental systems. We tend to ignore that sometimes, when we talk about how our relationships are going to go.
I remember when I came out of Burma in 2009, I got to Bangkok and we had this press conference. One of the first questions I got was, "How can you go in there and support an election that's going to happen in 2010 when you know the military is going to win the election?" I said, "When is the last time China had an election?" The answer is, they haven't. In that part of the world, incrementally, you take what you can get and build on it.
Ezra Klein: You mentioned America as not only a quiet ally, but also a military ally. What would be the conditions in which you would be willing to commit American forces to keep the current balance of powers in the region?
Jim Webb: I think the most successful military postures are those where you deter without ever having to have a major confrontation, by clearly enunciating what your national security objectives are and backing that with credibility. In fact, in the piece I wrote on Iraq in the Washington Post, I started off by saying the greatest victory in recent history was the Cold War, because we did that. We constantly communicated patiently over decades what our national security interests were.
Ezra Klein: One of the things that's been striking to me in Washington is the pressure to intervene. The Obama administration’s foreign policy has often seemed to me to be a dance to do just enough that they don't need to do more. I'm curious for your broad thoughts on the pressures around having America do a lot more in terms of occupation, or at least intervention.
Jim Webb: Let me start by saying I have a little bit of a different perspective on this, just because of the way I grew up, and my career. It hasn't just been here. I grew up in the military, served in Vietnam, spent time as a journalist. I was in Beirut when the Marines were there in 1983. I was in Afghanistan as an embed in 2004. I've been a military planner. I spent five years at the Pentagon.
We have a tendency now, more than just about any time in my adult life that I can remember, to jump toward the military option very quickly. We see something, and immediately — because the military is so reliable, weapons systems are more remote, and special operations are less visible —there's a tendency to just pull the trigger. In many, many cases, that isn't the best solution, in terms of how you address a lot of these problems; and in other cases, there are countries other than the United States that can step forward and do some of this, too.
The most important thing, I think, that we have been lacking since the end of the Cold War has been a clearly articulated national security policy, a set of principles. Not inflexible principles, but a set of principles that can be the guidepost when we're having some of these emotional discussions. I think that's doable.
Ezra Klein: It has often seemed to me that people in Washington really enjoy putting forward grand strategies. The town is thick with documents and meetings and conferences. But those strategies often end up feeling like they get adapted to whatever the people wanted to do anyway.
Jim Webb: There is a lot of situational ethics in our foreign policy. But I think what we have been lacking for a very long time is a clearly articulated set of principles from which these suggestions will be evaluated. The example I've used probably most often is the Nixon Doctrine, which Nixon put together with Henry Kissinger when he was elected during the height of the Vietnam War, trying to figure out when it is that the United States should assist a friend or an ally, and when they should actually inject military force, and what our responsibility is in terms of nuclear power, including proliferation. They weren't inflexible, but it was a way to measure what we were doing. We don't have that right now.
I asked Leon Panetta about this when we were in the run-up to the Arab Spring, and he was talking about regimes in that part of the world killing their own people. I said, "Well, let me ask you this. In 1989, China killed a couple thousand of its own people in Tiananmen Square. How would you rank that?" He thought about it a minute and said, "Well, personally, I would have to condemn it." But here we are.
America’s two most important priorities
Ezra Klein: Have you been following the fight Rand Paul has sparked inside the Republican Party over their foreign policy?
Jim Webb: Some.
Ezra Klein: I'm curious what you think about it.
Jim Webb: I'm not going to make any judgment for the Republican Party on its policies, but I think there was a time, like when I was in the Senate, when the John McCain faction was so loud that a lot of the Republican Party was intimidated by it, to the point that it was difficult to have discussions on what other options were. But I would let Republicans sort that out for themselves.
But speaking of Rand Paul, one of the great ironies for me, having spent all this time on criminal justice reform, is how the Democrats have basically ceded this incredibly important issue to the Republicans, and Rand Paul's the guy who's been running with it.
If I had to look at two issues that I believe we should really put on the front of the burner, that cost us billions and marginalize people, the first is criminal justice reform. We lose billions and billions of dollars every year in terms of lost talent. At the same time, there are career criminals, and they deserve, essentially, what they get.
The second is that we need, as a country, to focus on finding a medical solution to Alzheimer's. It potentially affects every family in America. It affects brilliant people and people who aren't so brilliant. If John Kennedy wanted to put a man on the moon, we should be able to get the talent of this country together and to find a cure. I think there could be a cure.
Ezra Klein: Why do you want to focus on Alzheimer's as a national priority, as opposed to diseases like, say, cancer?
Jim Webb: I think we do a good job on those, and we shouldn't stop. In my readings on this, we tend to focus our work in Alzheimer's and dementia more on the treatment than on the possibility that we could have a breakthrough. It's a huge, huge problem in terms of the number of people who are involved and the amount of money that is being spent on the treatment side of it. It's kind of surprising to me that we aren't doing more.