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Democratic Rep. Smith Is New Chair Of House Armed Services Panel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This week, newly empowered Democrats are asking why President Trump sent U.S. troops to the border with Mexico. The question comes from the House Armed Services Committee. New Chairman Adam Smith says he will use his power to question the president's use of the military.

ADAM SMITH: If you ask the military anything, do you know what the answer is? Yes. Can you take that hill? Can you win this war? They always say yes. That's why we have civilian control of the military. They need to have that attitude. We need to make the smart decisions to say, I appreciate the positive approach; I don't think you can, and I don't think it's in the best interests of the United States to spend your blood trying.

INSKEEP: Adam Smith has represented Washington state for more than 20 years. We met in his Capitol office, where he's preparing for a hearing on Tuesday. He has questions about the president's chaotic decision-making. He says that even though he broadly agrees with some of the president's goals. For example, he favors the president's move to reduce the U.S. presence in Syria, just not doing it so suddenly in a tweet.

SMITH: And that is the troubling thing, of course. The president - we won; it's over; ISIS is done; we can leave now. You know, I mean, where do you get that from?

INSKEEP: Well, has the president been right to push for a smaller U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan?

SMITH: I believe so. Yes. And Afghanistan's a real big problem. I really wish that the United States did not have national security interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our interest in the region is the threat of transnational terrorist groups, obviously. That's where bin Laden was hanging out when he hit us on 9/11. We want to make sure they don't rise again. But the perpetual notion that if we just put in another 5,000 troops, if we just stay another five years, then we'll have a stable enough government in Kabul that we'll have an ally - yeah. We are losing lives and spending money in Afghanistan, and I'm not sure we're making progress.

INSKEEP: Just go. You're open to that, you said.

SMITH: Well, not just go - there's no way to just go.

INSKEEP: But...

SMITH: OK.

INSKEEP: ...Get going in whatever fashion...

SMITH: Yes. Do it...

INSKEEP: ...You can.

SMITH: Yeah. It takes time - probably years, not months - in order to pull people out in a responsible way. But a strategy that says our continued military presence in Afghanistan is unlikely to improve the situation, is unlikely to be worth the cost, is an argument that is becoming more and more persuasive to me.

INSKEEP: Do you intend to use the power that you have as the head of this committee to push for that outcome?

SMITH: I intend to use the power that I have on this committee to spur that debate. And the only way out of this is through a negotiated settlement. And there will not be peace in Afghanistan, probably in my lifetime. There are so many factions and so many warlords. What you want is you want to try to reduce them. And the way to do that - make peace with the Taliban. You know, build some sort of coalition government. Believe me; there are costs to that. I understand that. You know, and then, hopefully, yes; use that group to fight off, you know, ISIS and others. But the Taliban blows hot and cold on that, you know, depending on the day, and I don't know.

INSKEEP: When President Trump ordered troops to the border to help secure the border against a caravan that - been in the news shortly before the midterm election, was that a legitimate use of U.S. military power?

SMITH: Absolutely not. And the active-duty troops, I think they, like, put up some barbed wire and maybe built a temporary structure or two, and you can't tell me that was a good use of their time. Border security has gotten a ton better in the last 14 years, in part because we've made a lot of policy decisions to do it. But the president is manufacturing a crisis to pander to his base and try to keep a - well, and obviously, he's not trying to keep his campaign promise because his campaign promise was that Mexico was going to pay for it. But he made that promise because it played well with the crowd. Something that plays well to the crowd doesn't translate into policy. Now, to the extent we have a - these caravans that are coming - they're turning themselves in. OK? You don't need a wall. You know, you don't need anything (ph) to stop them. We need stuff to process them. The only thing that has really changed is we could use some more money for judges to process asylum-seekers. You know, processing asylum-seekers is the crisis, and the president is demagoguing this issue instead of addressing the problems that he raises.

INSKEEP: If the deployment to the border right before the election was not a legitimate use of military power, what was it? Was that a political use of the military?

SMITH: Absolutely. I mean, the president was trying - this crisis - they're coming for us. You heard his language. You know, we have an invasion, you know, coming at us, which was utter and complete nonsense. But when you engage the active-duty military, that drives up the debate because that's what we use - and the military is stopping an invasion. Well, the military didn't stop anything. Most of those people who went down to the border were sitting around playing cards because they didn't have anything to do because there was no invasion.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, are you prepared to do now that you are in the majority, should you see another deployment of the military that you view as political?

SMITH: Well, the deployment's still going on, so this is not a past-tense problem. This is a present-tense problem, and our first hearing is going to be on this subject. We want an explanation of the policy. We want to shine a light on it and make it clear, in my view, that there is no legitimate purpose here. And if there's no legitimate purpose, then why are you wasting the amount of money that you're wasting to put them down there?

INSKEEP: Are you concerned about further political deployments?

SMITH: Absolutely. This president does not operate like any president I've ever dealt with or ever read about. He is unabashed in pursuing his agenda in any way he sees fit.

INSKEEP: That leads to another question. We've been following the news from Venezuela, where there are two competing presidents. And one key factor, as we have reported, is - who is in charge of the military? - whose orders the military will follow. The United States is nowhere near that level of chaos, but it's a tense political moment. Have you asked questions of military leaders to be sure they know what rules to follow in the event of a crisis?

SMITH: I think this is part of the debate and part of what went into the border deployment - was the concern that the president - there was mixed messages coming out of the White House that wanted to use them for law enforcement in the U.S., which is a clear violation of our Constitution and a precedent that we do not want to set. So yes; part of this discussion about the border deployment is going to be to emphasize the clear constitutional law that U.S. military does not do domestic criminal situations. They are not allowed to act as a law enforcement agency.

INSKEEP: Have you already raised that question with military officials that you must talk with from time to time?

SMITH: Yeah. I - well, I raised it with Secretary Mattis, but he's not there anymore, so - and we talked about this a couple times, as we were concerned about it. And I will say that the Pentagon secretary, Mattis, and everybody I spoke to was - you know, they were very adamant about not stepping across that line. The mixed messages were coming out of civilians in the White House, not out of the Pentagon. They were very clear that they were not going to engage in law enforcement activity.

INSKEEP: Mr. Chairman, thanks very much.

SMITH: Thanks for the chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "TRANSFIXED")

INSKEEP: Adam Smith is the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which plans a hearing on the border deployment tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "TRANSFIXED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.