(February 4, 2019 / JNS) Editor’s Note: A number of freshman members of Congress, including those in the new Democratic House majority, will bring new faces to the Jewish and pro-Israel community. JNS will introduce some of these legislators as part of its “Meet the Newbie” series.
Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, 45, defeated Democrat Nancy Soderberg in the 2018 midterm elections in Florida’s 6th Congressional District to replace Rep. Ron DeSantis, who was elected the state’s governor in a contentious race. Before joining Congress, Waltz served as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and is the first Green Beret ever elected to Congress. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he served a senior role at the Pentagon as the director of Afghanistan policy as well as senior advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney for South Asia and Counter terrorism.
JNS talked with Waltz in person. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What is your overall stance on the U.S.-Israel relationship?
A: A strong U.S.-Israel relationship is critical—it’s critical to our national security, it’s critical to the region. That ranges from our cultural and historic ties together; our values of democracy, freedom, free press, individual liberties and, of course, defense. I’m a proponent of the qualitative military edge that we’ve committed to our Israeli allies. With me as a member, you’re going to get someone who has walked the walk overseas across the Middle East, across South Asia, across Africa, has a little dirt under the fingernails. So it’s really not just a talking point with me. I don’t think you’re going to find any members who have actively operated against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] and seen what they’re about. I’ve seen firsthand what Iran wants to do in the region not only to Israel as our ally, but to American interests. Bottom line: I think the relationship is critical across the board.
Q: Do you mind elaborating on your experience? You mentioned the IRGC.
A: When I served abroad in Afghanistan, the IRGC was very active with the Taliban, even though they would not have a natural relationship with Iran obviously being Shia, the Taliban being an extremist Sunni organization. But we’ve seen Iran through the IRGC and through the Kuds force, which is its foreign operations force, very effectively have marriages of convenience with surrogates that may not be naturally aligned but have forces that they want to use against the U.S., which is exactly what they were doing with the Taliban through training, through recruiting, and helping them with arming and equipping.
Q: What is your reaction to the decision for U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria?
A: I’m glad to see the president at least slowing down that decision. I think when the U.S. leaves and doesn’t lead, then bad actors fill the void, so I have been very public [about] encourage[ing] him to reconsider. I think the U.S. needs to remain invested—not only to stand with our allies, the Kurds, who have been our allies on the ground, but to ensure ISIS remains defeated. We’ve defeated them as a caliphate, but we haven’t defeated them as a movement. I think ISIS could easily go to guerilla-warfare mode and re-emerge. So for the U.S. to have to fight their way back in after we’ve left the region would be incredibly difficult [and] cause more casualties in the long run. And finally, to check Iran’s ambitions. We all know that Iran had great success under the Obama administration in building a land bridge from Western Afghanistan all the way through Iraq through Syria and into Lebanon. They have amassed forces on Israel’s border. They have great success operating through the [Bashar] Assad regime. And if our strategy, which I believe is the right one, is to check Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, then Syria is a critical part of that. There is no one who wants the soldiers to come home more than me, as one who fought and had to leave my family multiple times, who’s lost men in combat. But at the same time, just as we’ve invested forces in South Korea, just as we’ve invested forces in Japan, just as we’ve invested forces in South America [and] Western Europe, I think a small investment working alongside locals to maintain stability in the Middle East, to check Iranian ambitions and to keep ISIS on its backfoot, is an investment worth making.
Q: Does it help our allies the Kurds to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria? Isn’t Iran a bigger threat than ISIS there?
A: I don’t know if Iran is a bigger threat. I think they’re both threats. As I was just saying, we have to keep our foot on the neck of ISIS; we have to ensure they remain destroyed; and we have to work with local actors to check Iran.
Q: Does America need a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force to fight Iranian troops?
A: I’ve seen talk of introducing an AUMF in some legislation that’s flowing around. It doesn’t make sense to introduce an AUMF for Syria at the same time the president said we’re on some timetable to leave. That whole notion doesn’t make sense to me, and I’d have to see what’s actually proposed.
Q: Would you vote against an AUMF that authorizes U.S. troops to fight Iranian forces?
A: I would not necessarily vote against it, but I’m also very cautious about constraining the administration and constraining the military’s hands, so I’d really have to see the language.
Q: What’s your stance on BDS?
A: Certainly not for it. I am disturbed to see members of Congress who are publicly for the BDS movement. I find that incredibly disturbing.
Q: Members of Congress like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)?
A: Yeah. I find that incredibly disturbing.
Q: What’s your take on U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority?
A: We have to work with the Palestinians; we have to work with both sides [regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]. We certainly should not be funding the Palestinians when they’re teaching extremism in their schools and when they’re taking actions, particularly when those funds could be directly or indirectly going to Hamas.
Q: What’s your stance on the Iran deal and the reimposition of sanctions?
A: The Iran deal that the Obama administration put in place was one of the worst diplomatic deals in modern American history. I was certainly for the president pulling out. I think what the president and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton understand is that the Achilles heel of the Iranian regime is its stranglehold on the economy. We’re seeing day after day more and more protests against that stranglehold. Pulling out of the Iran deal effectively allowed us to reimpose sanctions and to begin constricting the Iranian regime’s stranglehold on its people. We have to do more to address countries around the world that buy Iranian oil. But I’m certainly for working with our allies to sell more oil to India to further that constriction.
Q: What are your thoughts on America supporting Lebanese Armed Forces, who have worked with Hezbollah?
A: That’s a complicated issue. For the forces that are working with or have been under the control of Hezbollah, we certainly shouldn’t be supporting them. At the same time, by completely withdrawing an American presence, then I don’t want to hand the Lebanese army over to Hezbollah as well. So I think there is room for us to remain engaged with the Lebanese army, and to have a presence with the Lebanese army [for] training and equipment [purposes], but we also at the same time have to have strong oversight over where that stuff is going. If we can’t have that oversight, then I think we need to relook the whole issue.
Q: What’s your reaction to the House passing the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act?
A: I voted for it, so I’m certainly for it.
Q: Do you think the Senate will take it up soon?
A: I’m not sure where they are with it. I’m just trying to get through my own votes. But I would certainly encourage them to do so.
Q: What are your thoughts on anti-Semitism nationally and worldwide?
A: There’s just no place for it in the United States. There shouldn’t be a place for it worldwide. I’m not naive enough to think that it won’t exist. You will certainly have an ally and a vocal actor here in fighting against it, and I think the louder people are in standing up against it, the better.
Q: Is there anything else our readers should know about you?
A: I would just expose them to my background. I’m not here just talking the talk. I’ve walked the walk, whether that is fighting extremism overseas, whether that is building a business. The biggest part of my business was actually going after what we call “threat finance”—terrorist groups that finance themselves through all kinds of means all over the world, whether it’s counterfeiting cigarettes like Hezbollah does in North Africa, or whether it’s human trafficking or oil and gas. That’s what my business focused on.
Finally, I worked for Vice President Dick Cheney; I was his counterterrorism adviser. His views were very clear on a lot of these issues. I was proud to serve in that capacity in the Bush administration. Bottom line is, I’m probably not your average freshman congressman. Been around the block a few times in D.C. and combat around the world, and I’m here to get things done.