Where Congress candidates stand on national security issues
New York’s 21st Congressional District can feel isolated from the rest of the world, snuggled against a friendly border and far from any major threats. Through Fort Drum, however, the district has provided many of the soldiers for America’s post-9/11 military missions and is home to many active-duty and retired military personnel — more than any other district in the state.
The question of military and national security issues is particularly important, then, for whoever wins the upcoming congressional race.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, said there has been no update on the national security project that would most immediately impact the district, the East Coast Missile Defense, yet. But she has continued to bring it up with the administration.
“Obviously we are still working with the administration to encourage them to choose Fort Drum,” Stefanik said. “I spoke about that personally with Vice President Pence during his visit to Fort Drum.”
If a missile defense site is approved, the Missile Defense Agency will have 90 days to recommend one of the three potential sites: Fort Drum, Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan.
“I’ve been disappointed in the delays,” Stefanik said.
Stefanik also highlighted her work on veterans issues in the district.
“The Veterans Affairs system has not done enough to provide the quality of health care we need,” Stefanik said.
Stefanik pointed to her office’s work on securing VA benefits and strengthening the VA Choice program, which allows veterans to use non-VA health care providers if they cannot receive the care required at a facility within 40 miles.
Even with the current Congress bringing more funding to veteran care than any previous Congress, there are still major issues — especially in providing transportation for veterans to get to hospitals outside the district. Stefanik has a series of proposals that could increase access to care.
“Trying to rethink and invest in our transportation system, utilizing online tools more effectively so they can have access to specialists, really having metrics on what the wait time is,” she said. “I would be open to a VA hospital in the district, and I think we should be looking at pilot programs in rural areas of the country for how we can improve our veteran care.”
When it comes to national security and military involvement abroad, Stefanik sees the greatest threat in the sheer number of threats.
“I think our biggest threat now is the confluence of so many national security challenges,” she said. “At no point in my life have we faced this many national security challenges.”
She rattled off a list: Russian aggression and propaganda, Chinese expansion in the South China Seas, Iran, North Korea and global terrorism.
To counter those threats, Stefanik advocates a mix of diplomatic pressure, technological investment and working with allies along with American hard power.
For Russia and China, she advocates investing in military hardware — arming Ukraine and increasing American naval resources in the South China Sea — but also countering Russian propaganda and investing in artificial intelligence to stay ahead of China. She also advocates working with allies to keep the two countries in check: the Baltic states and Ukraine to counter Russia, Japan and other Asian allies to counter China.
Stefanik sees progress in negotiations with North Korea but takes a much harder line on Iran.
“I didn’t support the Iran deal; I think it’s a very bad deal,” she said, referring to the Obama-era deal designed to curb Iran’s nuclear aspirations. “We have to keep in mind Iran is the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism. … This is not a regime we should be working with.”
Stefanik thinks the United States should support Iranian dissidents and work with regional allies — United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait and Israel — with the eventual goal of regime change.
“We need to see a next chapter of Iranian leadership that respects human rights, that isn’t investing billions of dollars in terrorist organizations,” she said. “And at the moment we’re not seeing any of those things in the current regime.”
Asked about the absence of Saudi Arabia on her list of regional allies, Stefanik said relationships with the country have been complicated by the apparent murder of a Saudi journalist who was a U.S. resident, Jamal Khashoggi.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is multi-faceted,” she said. “It is an important counterbalance to Iran in the Gulf.” But the apparent murder requires a response, she said.
“We should not tolerate this kind of behavior, and I think there needs to be consequences,” she said, although she was vague on what the consequences should be. “It’s deeply disappointing, particularly as you see in Saudi Arabia, with the shift in generational leadership, there was a significant focus on embarking on this new chapter in Saudi Arabia, increased transparency, more rights towards women. This single act is so many steps back for the country of Saudi Arabia.”
Asked if Saudi Arabia could really be described as making progress while they remain involved in a brutal war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians, including through Saudi bombings, Stefanik offered a defense of Saudi involvement.
“Yemen is one of the most dangerous hotbeds of extremism and the rise of ISIS,” she said. “It’s not just the Saudis that are concerned about Yemen; it’s also the Emiratis that are concerned as well.”
While ISIS does have affiliates in Yemen, the terrorist group is just one element in a complex civil war between a regime backed by the Saudis and the United States against Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
As for direct American involvement in any of these conflicts, Stefanik thinks it is better to go to the “train, advise and assist” model the U.S. military is trying to implement in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also thinks it is time to revisit the legal cover for many international interventions, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed to allow the United States to pursue the perpetrators of 9/11. It has since been used in 10 countries as widely spread as Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia and Somalia.
“I believe we should update the AUMF,” Stefanik said. “We face significant threats today that are different than those in 2001.”
Tedra Cobb, the Democratic challenger, is unsure of whether Fort Drum should be the home of an East Coast Missile Defense site.
“I can’t say I support it,” she said. “It’s not a yes or no because the analysis hasn’t been done.”
Cobb would want to know what the Pentagon thinks is best before advocating for northern New York as the home of the defense.
Cobb is enthusiastic about Fort Drum, however, saying that residents in the eastern part of the congressional district do not always understand the impact the fort has. Cobb said she remembers the expansion of Fort Drum during the 1990s and the decrease in civilian federal employees from about 5,000 to about 4,000 in 2010.
“That has a huge effect on our community and our economic well-being,” she said. “When sequestration happens, it has a negative effect on our workforce.”
The impact, Cobb said, goes beyond the fact that Fort Drum uses community hospitals and schools for enlisted soldiers. There are also very real impacts from civilian employees.
“Since 2010 what we have paid our federal workers has fallen behind,” she said. “That has an impact on the overall economic community.”
Cobb also spoke about her experience as a county legislature on a veterans working group, looking at how people leaving the service could transition into the civilian world.
“They’re issues of integration in the community,” she said.
Many service members develop skills in the military, but civilian employers do not understand their relevance once they leave, Cobb said.
Cobb also criticized the VA, which currently has over 40,000 open jobs. She thinks the employment gaps need to be closed and that there needs to be an investment in peer programs.
She also highlighted the issues of access to care.
“I think the difficulty is finding support and the distances people have to go,” she said. “Obviously the closest VA [hospital] is in Syracuse on this end of the district, Albany on the other end.”
Cobb said she would be open to the idea of building a VA hospital in the district.
When it comes to national security, Cobb sees the biggest threat not in a peer nations or terrorist groups, but something even bigger.
“Climate change, actually,” she said. “We need to respect and act on the best science available.”
From climate refugees to food shortages, she thinks that it will be the greatest threat in the future.
Cobb also sees the greatest threat from Russia and advocates a strong diplomatic front.
“We need to continue working closely with our allies to continue sanctions on Russia,” she said. As for NATO, “I think we have taken years and years since World War II to build relations, and we can’t risk that.”
Cobb also has a great deal of faith in alliances.
“We use many strategies to build our relations with people in the world, and I feel we need to be very careful about ruining our relationships with our partners.”
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, she thinks the U.S. could work with allies to withdraw diplomats and institute sanctions in response. Asked about the ability of the United States to stop selling arms to the Saudis, Cobb said it was better to act together.
“We could” act unilaterally, she said. “It’s stronger when we act with partners.”
In the private sector, Cobb said the government should work with companies like Facebook and Google on cybersecurity.
Cobb is skeptical of increasing U.S. military involvement, however, citing the Powell Doctrine, which, among other things, requires an obtainable objective, an exit strategy, and domestic and international support.
“Wherever we are in the world should be part of a plan,” Cobb said. “We have to revisit the use of military force; that’s simple.”
Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn wants to see a strong U.S. military force with fewer engagements abroad and more focus on taking care of soldiers and veterans.
“I think we’ve been fighting wars for oil, empire and ego,” she said.
Kahn wants a military that is still powerful, just smarter about what engagements it is involved in and how money is spent.
“I’m really a pragmatist about real threats,” she said. “That makes me a very independent Green.”
That being said, Kahn thinks an East Coast Missile Defense site at Fort Drum would be appropriate.
“I’m fine with that. I think we need to pay more attention to Russia and China and North Korea,” she said. “We must be strong to build peace.”
Her major concerns involve environmental hazards, like burn pits used to dispose of refuse on deployments, and even in military housing.
“I’ve talked to families from Fort Drum who are concerned about the environmental quality of the housing on base,” she said.
She also supports a stronger health care system for veterans in the district.
“They deserve their own world-class hospital,” she said.
In fact, she would like to tear up the VA by the roots and start over.
“We do need to start with a new mission for the Veterans Administration,” she said. “Why do we still have this cumbersome benefit process? … That whole process needs to be completely reinvented.”
And for non-veterans, she thinks there should be more awareness of the issues veterans face.
“Parades are nice,” she said. “But it’s about conversations, and it’s about welcoming them home.”
As for the issues the military should be concerned with, Kahn said Russian submarine warfare, cyber-attacks and climate change are the greatest national security threats at the moment.
“I’ve been reading Russian subs have been nosing around our telecommunication infrastructure,” she said. At the moment, she thinks it is a greater threat than Russian expansionist aspirations in Eastern Europe.
As for cyber-attacks, “I think we are not prepared nationally for the level of cyber-attacks,” she said. “We could have a great, robust, international … focus on that.”
But Kahn also wants more transparency on weaponry, especially nuclear weapons.
“I want to know what kind of nukes we’re building and why,” she said. “I want to know why we aren’t following nuclear reduction treaties.”
This also extends to how many conflicts the American military is involved in.
“I think we need to have that conversation: What are we doing in Africa? What are we doing in Niger?” she said. “I want to know why.”
Kahn is particularly interested in winding down campaigns in the Middle East.
“I think we need to stop dropping bombs on the Middle East,” she said.
Asked about the Tomahawk missiles launched against Syrian military installations after apparent chemical attacks ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Kahn said she opposed it.
“I don’t think it’s legal or constitutional,” she said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Like the other candidates, Kahn is skeptical of Saudi Arabia at the moment.
“I’d like to have congressional hearings on our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” she said. “Why is our Congress letting this happen?”
In fact, Kahn would like to ask that question about a great number of issues.
“We just have to start asking the bigger questions,” she said.