“We Need More Veterans in Congress” – Chris Lewis Interview, Part II

Jacob Morrison | February 10, 2020
Chris Lewis
Chris Lewis

Mo Brooks is the four-term Republican incumbent for the 5th district of Alabama in the United States House of Representatives. Since his first election in 2010,  he has faced multiple challenges both from inside and outside his party but has fended them all off handily. 

Retired Navy Commander Chris Lewis thinks this time will be different. Challenging Brooks in the Republican primary to be held March 3rd, Lewis believes he is best suited to represent the district this time around. Seen as a long-shot by most of the punditry, he was shockingly endorsed by the FarmPAC. This is shocking because Lewis is their only non-incumbent endorsement. This has given him more legitimacy in the eyes of many, although Mo Brooks dismissed the endorsement as coming from a few disgruntled activist farmers. Lewis also received endorsements by Dynetics, a Huntsville based Defense Contractor, and two weeks ago, Lewis racked up two more endorsements: the Professional Fire Fighters of Alabama – the union representing firefighters in the state, and Combat Veterans for Congress, further adding to his credibility.

I had a chance to sit down with Lewis and talk to him about his run, his opinion on Brooks’ tenure, and his opinion on the important political issues of the day. 

The interview has been broken into three parts and edited for length and clarity. In part two we discussed foreign policy, the military climate change, and energy policy.

For more on Chris Lewis, you can find the first part of our interview here.

JM

What does a Chris Lewis foreign policy look like?

CL

We can’t be isolationist, but that doesn’t mean we are everywhere and everything for everyone. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are good examples of the US trying exactly that. Since World War II, the American public has not had the stomach to do what it needs to do when it sends it’s military forward. What I mean by that is, the military is not a policing force nor is it the State Department – the military has not been trained to do those things, but we put the military in the position of the State Department and of a policing force primarily because the military has the size and the logistics capability to accomplish those missions. So Congress and the president use that as a tool. There are only 96 veterans in Congress now – we have to have more veterans, more people in Congress that understand the role of the military. We have to have more leaders that understand what it means to send an 18-year old forward with a rifle and understand what we’re asking them to do. The military is a piece of foreign policy, but it’s not all of the foreign policy. Most would say it’s the last piece to use in foreign policy. 

Good foreign-policy means engagement, where and when we need to engage, at the limited amounts we need to engage. 

JM

The United States has been funding what many are calling a genocide in Yemen by materially supporting Saudi-led rebel coalitions in the area. Following the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, Senator Mike Lee and Senator Bernie Sanders spearheaded an effort to end US support for those Saudi-led rebels, and it passed with bipartisan support. It was vetoed by Trump, however, and despite the bipartisan support, it wasn’t quite enough to override a veto. US support for the Saudi-led rebel coalitions continues. Would you have supported that bill if you were in Congress? In the next Congress, should you be elected, would you support an effort to pass the bill again and override a veto if needed?

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CL

So first things first, you’re asking me whether I’m going to support a bill I’ve never read. I can’t answer that, and you would not want me as a representative to say, “yes I’m going to support that or no I’m not going to support that,” if I don’t fully understand what was in it. So not having read it I can’t give you a direct answer on that specifically. 

What I can tell you is that Congress and the President have more information than we have on what’s happening with that funding and what’s happening in that environment. 

My way of dealing with that situation, when I am in office, and were that to come back up, would be to spend the time and effort to fully understand the bill and the environment – “what’s really happening.” Then I’d make a decision.

The foreign policy description I just gave provides you with a good understanding of how I would address this bill. We have to be limited in how we engage, but we do have to engage.

JM

A few months ago, Trump abandoned our Kurdish allies in Rojava. This resulted in a lot of deaths and the escape of scores of ISIS militants. It’s caused some reaction among Republicans, but no action was ultimately taken. Would you support congressional action to support our Kurdish allies in the region who have led the fight against ISIS? What are your thoughts on the pull-out there?

CL

Why are we in Syria?

JM

To fight ISIS.

CL

There’s the challenge, right? 

There’s actually two reasons we went into Syria. The first was, Assad gassed his own people – Obama went in on that. The second was ISIS, and later we went back in because Assad was gassing his people again. 

When we go anywhere we have to pick a side. That’s the reality of foreign policy. We picked the Taliban against the Russians in the ’70s and ’80s and now we’re fighting the Taliban. Don’t be naive and believe that everybody we side with is groups we would invite to our tables at home. 

We, the American public, our congressmen, aren’t willing to do what we need to do in Syria. We’re not going to take over the state. We’re not going to take over the nation. We’re not going to unseat Assad. 

So why are we shedding blood there? 

We had effectively dismantled ISIS in the region. We destabilized and we dismantled it. Trump wanted to pull out a year ago, but his generals had discussions with him, no doubt with classified information, and we can’t overlook that. So based upon the information provided to him, the President chose not to withdraw. Then he made a decision three months ago to pull out. I don’t have the briefing information he has, the voters don’t have the briefing information he has. I would lay odds, knowing how classified information is handled, that not all of those congressmen bashing the President have all of the information the President had.  So, we’re playing armchair quarterback. 

The reality is, if we’re going to move the military forward, we as a society have to be willing to accept what the military is there to do.  In the case of Syria, we weren’t, and we’re not, and that’s not a bad thing. We weren’t going to overthrow Syria, overthrow Assad, and we weren’t willing to occupy the state.

That all being said, the reality is I don’t have the information to pass judgment on either the congressmen who said we should stay or the president who said we should go. Ultimately, the President has that authority.

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JM

Do you think that authority has been abdicated from its rightful place in the Congress?

CL

I think Congress hasn’t done a thing in a decade. Why do you think I’m here? I’ve never run for anything in my life. I have a Political Science undergraduate degree from the United States Naval Academy, and a Political Science Master’s degree, and I’ve stayed as far away from politics as possible. But we as a society have allowed Congress to get where it is.  We the American people have created this environment. 

The Presidents are doing things that really shouldn’t be done by the president because; Congress is failing to act, and has focused more on re-election and power. 

JM

The Afghanistan papers have been released recently – the Pentagon Papers of our time in my opinion – but it’s received very little coverage. They show something that’s pretty important: that the Bush administration knowingly lied us into war in the Middle East. Nancy Pelosi bragged that despite having this knowledge at the time she made no moves to impeach Bush. Others have called for hearings on these papers to expose to the public to the depth of the deception. What’s your response to the release of the Afghanistan papers?

CL

It’s good we were able to release the papers through the Freedom of Information Act, but when you play armchair quarterback to a bunch of people who were in the heat of the moment trying to make a decision – you don’t do any of us justice. 

This statement that you read saying that Bush lied us into war – I’d need to see that. I haven’t read that. I haven’t read all of the Afghan papers, but remember I’ve been at war the entire time. 15 years of my 23-year career at war.  I’ve been in the heat of the moment. I’ve said things that if you read them you would go “whoa,” but you’d be taking them out of context. With regards to the Afghanistan papers, I’d need to read the papers in their entirety along with understanding the information and context in which they were written before I would be willing to judge them. 

A lot of decisions get made. We didn’t have the intelligence-gathering capability in 2001 that we have today. So were decisions made for personal reasons? Maybe, I don’t know. We need to learn from those papers, but it shouldn’t be a witch hunt. 

We sent General McNeil to Afghanistan twice to run it, and I was there with NATO when he was the head of the NATO command there. Congress and the President sent him there and did not give him a description of what winning is, and he asked for it! You know, if you play basketball you can define winning. When the clock ends you have one more point than the other team. I can understand that, but when you send an army to war and you can’t define winning – don’t lay that blame on a single man. 

We need to take away the things we can learn from the papers – things such as don’t send the military forward if you’re truly not going to define winning. 

Great example again: my role in Afghanistan was strategic analysis. The number one thing I learned and saw over there was, we were sending coalition units, NATO units, US units into Afghanistan, and they were re-learning the same mistakes that units before them were making, It was costing men and women their lives. Why was that? We hadn’t created any system where we could flow that information from the unit currently in Afghanistan back to the unit relieving them. It’s a simple concept, it’s called lessons learned. We didn’t have that. So we created that. It’s one of the things I did in Afghanistan that I’m most proud of, creating that system within NATO to ensure we were flowing that information so we were not putting people at risk. Those are the things we ought to be taking out of the Afghan papers;  NOT “oh my God he lied, let’s go back and lambaste Bush.”

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JM

 Do you think that we should have hearings on those papers? As you said, you haven’t even read them and you’re a congressional candidate. There are a lot of people that don’t even know that they’ve been released. Do you think that we should be having these public hearings to get out into the public what they say and the lessons to be learned?

CL

No.

We need to get those papers to people who can analyze them. We need to get them to the military. We need to get them to the State Department. We don’t need congressional hearings to lay blame. That is all a congressional hearing would do. We as a society right now want to lay blame. I don’t need Congress doing that. Congress’s job is not to lay blame, Congress’s job is to address our issues and our challenges.

JM

You mentioned earlier that you’re a fiscal conservative, and you mentioned that in the context of the military actually. Our military budget, as I’m sure you know, is far and away from the largest in the world. That’s the result of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and military spending. Do you think that there’s room for fiscal conservatism in the Republican Party or in the Congress at all for military spending?

CL

Absolutely.

First thing we have to do in the government is look at the government. When I do a budget at home when we move, or a life-changing event happens, I look at that budget and assess what are the must-haves, what are the needs, and what are the wants. If, at the end of the day, what you’ve got coming in fits then you’re good. When it’s not, you have to go in and make a decision: what is not of value?

The government first needs to look at itself, and it needs to look at all branches of itself and it needs to say what was the original intent for that organization? Did it accomplish it? What is it doing now? Then it needs to correct itself. If that means we need to downsize something then we need to downsize. Great example: when I retired from the military, the way retirement was structured was called a high three. Under that system, the day I hit 20 years I started working for half of my salary. The Department of Defense said we can’t afford to do that anymore because people are retiring at 40 and living for 50 more years. It was never foreseen to have that problem and we can’t sustain it. So they changed it. The Department of Defense did exactly what I’m saying. They stepped back and said we can’t afford this retirement structure anymore. We have to adjust. 

But Congress didn’t change its a retirement plan. So, how about this? How about we eliminate the congressional retirement first off? Congress ought to look at itself, and then it needs to address the rest. That’s how you do fiscal conservatism. And this is important, fiscal conservatism doesn’t mean you don’t spend money on infrastructure, it doesn’t mean you don’t spend money on education, it doesn’t mean you don’t spend money to develop other things, it doesn’t mean “don’t spend.” That’s the difference between myself and the current Congressman. Our current congressman believes fiscal conservatism means you don’t spend money. I believe you evaluate where your money is best spent and you spend to grow. There’s no business in this world that grows and is successful by not spending money. It’s not the reality of it. You have to invest in your community, but you have to invest wisely. In our district right now, the expansion of I-565 would balloon this area in a heartbeat. That’s where good money is spent. 

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JM

Are you in concurrence with the general scientific consensus that climate change is real, that it’s man-made, and that there needs to be action taken? If yes, what action should Congress take on that?

CL

So I’m not a climate change expert, I’ll be blunt.

Are we impacting climate? Absolutely. There’s no possible way to say that paving this parking lot did not impact nature. To the extent we’re doing that, I would need to have a better understanding and have spent time on the research in order to make that assessment. When legislation moves forward that’s exactly what I’ll do. We have to limit our impact on nature the best we can. Have we reached a point where we need to go back to a horse and buggy to survive? I don’t think so.

JM

I don’t think anybody does.

CL

Some do.  By their estimation, we have five years if we don’t make a massive change, and that massive change is to stop driving cars. That’s what they’re talking about if you don’t do that within five years we’ve hit a point where we can’t turn back the clock, we can’t stop the reaction. What I can say about climate change is that I will find people that can help me make those decisions when it’s time to vote.

The one thing I will say is this: on any issue, the first thing I will do is listen. I’ll listen to both sides so that I can ensure I have all of the information before I make a decision. And again, I’ll restate;I don’t give up my morals and values to do that. 

JM

The solar industry has been lobbying for the continuation of the solar panel tax credit – it’s set to expire, and the solar industry is saying that’s unfair because there are still several different subsidies that are going to the fossil fuel industries. Would you support a renewal of the solar panel tax credit?

CL

I will say that all energy has a positive and negative impact on our society. With regards to a tax credit for any of them, I’d have to look at the exact situation and why we’re doing it. Why are we doing a solar panel tax credit? Is it to sell more solar panels, or is it truly making an impact? Why are we doing a farm subsidy right now? Is it to sell more cotton or is it to protect a national asset? I would say it’s to ensure we protect the national asset. So I need to understand what that solar panel subsidy is for and what it’s really doing. Can we show evidence that it is doing exactly what it said it was intended to do, or has it outgrown its value and viability for us as a nation, or is it simply there for someone’s profit? I will listen and learn before I pass judgment.

Jacob is a proud Alabamian, a BS in Mathematics, a union member, someone dedicated to a more just and democratic society. He can be found on Twitter @JacobM_AL and emailed at [email protected]

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