Communities

Outspoken Iraq War Veteran-Turned-Congressman On What Scares Him More—Terrorism Or Trump?

by Nancy Miller

November 7, 2016

Massachusetts Congressional Representative Seth Moulton doesn’t have much of a political pedigree. “The first congressman my parents ever met was me,” Moulton, 38, recently joked to a small crowd at GOOD’s Los Angeles offices. But the outspoken newcomer from his home state’s 6th District is a veteran of another, and arguably more important order: After graduating from Harvard in 2001 with a degree in physics, Moulton joined the Marine Corps and served roughly five years in the military, which included four tours in Iraq. His experience and support for war veterans helped him win his first congressional term two years ago. He’s gone on to propose key strategic efforts in the Middle East, with a focus on diplomacy over defense. Here, he talks to GOOD about the conflict in Mosul, his greatest concerns about Trump, and why Putin is afraid of Clinton.

GOOD: The battle to defeat ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, has been in headlines recently—as a former Marine and strategist, what’s your take on our U.S. military strategy?

Seth Moulton: I released an Iraq strategy document a month ago that in a nutshell says, “It’s not enough just too militarily defeat the terrorists. You’ve got to have a political plan to ensure the peace. If we don’t have that, we’ll be back in Iraq five years from now refighting the same battles that we’re refighting today.” And that’s the great tragedy of the fact that, even under the president who promised to get out of Iraq, we’ve sent thousands of troops back in and we have to ask as Americans, “How will this time be different?” and I’ve yet to hear an answer for that question. There’s no plan for day after Mosul, but more broadly speaking there’s no plan to just ensure the peace in Iraq going forward so that we don’t find ourselves back in the same mess five years down the road.

GOOD: So, obviously the frustration is palpable for you. You’ve experienced this as a Marine. Just outline for me a bit of your policy.

Seth Moulton: The political and diplomatic effort has to underlie whatever military effort we’re taking. And we didn’t do this during the invasion of Iraq and infamously didn’t have a plan for phase four. We had phase one, two, three—but what comes afterwards.

GOOD: The false notion is, you get rid of the bad guy and you’re done.

Seth Moulton: Right. We learned that lesson during the surge in Iraq, which was really quite successful actually. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were joined at the hip.

It’s not that hard to figure out why Putin does not want Clinton to be elected president. Putin knows he has Trump in his pocket, but he’s scared of Clinton and that’s a good thing. 

General Petraeus always said that his military mission was to defeat the terrorists in order to make a space for Iraqi politics to succeed and Ambassador Crocker outlined exactly what that political endgame was. And so, I knew even as just a young Marine officer leading some patrol in the middle of the night, I knew what ultimately we were trying to achieve—what political ends we were trying to achieve with the military effort that we had to undertake. If you go today to Iraq and ask that same question to the guys on the ground—as I have—they don’t know. In fact, the generals don’t even know and that does not bode well for our long-term success. It’s also fundamentally unfair to the troops that we’re asking to risk their lives for an uncertain mission.

GOOD: But wait—we’ve gone to war many, many times. What’s the memo we’re not getting? What’s missing?

Seth Moulton: Well, I think the missing point is understanding the importance of diplomacy—we need to resource the Department of Defense and the State Department. And we need to make sure that the State Department is actually working, which I think some people have some legitimate complaints about its effectiveness. We’ve got to make sure we fix that. But we have the best military that the world has ever seen, and I think because of that it’s become easy for us as Americans to always turn to the military to solve our problems overseas. But not everything has a military solution, there’s a fundamental political problem we need to address as well.

GOOD: We’re living in an age, particularly this election, that diplomacy isn’t necessarily considered a valuable form of discourse.

Seth Moulton: Correct. Not even on the campaign trail, let alone in our foreign policy.

GOOD: That’s right—we’re having issues with leaders from around the world, like in the Philippines and Russia. Is this just a less diplomatic age?

Seth Moulton: Oh, no. I mean, look at all the people that you just mentioned, they’re leaders that we’re not at war with—at least overtly. On the cyber front you might argue that we’re at war with Russia. But no, these examples actually point out that a lot of our effort has to be diplomatic because some of the greatest concerns around the globe are not outright nations that are trying to attack us, but rather nations that we are sensible allies with— like the Philippines—who are exhibiting concerning behavior. What we’ve got to do there is use much more aggressive diplomacy to achieve our goals.

GOOD: Let’s game this out. Hillary Clinton becomes president. How do you think she’d be effective with these global conflicts?

Seth Moulton: Well, specifically in the Middle East, and implementing the political strategy that I laid out for Iraq: Who better to do that than someone who is an effective Secretary of State, someone who is respected by our allies and frankly feared by our enemies across the globe? It’s not that hard to figure out why Putin does not want Clinton to be elected president. He’s scared of her. Putin knows he has Trump in his pocket, but he’s scared of Clinton and that’s a good thing. Because she knows how to be a strong diplomat. Clinton is well positioned to execute that kind of strategy where we shore up our alliances, which have in some instances floundered under the Obama administration.

GOOD: Trump talks about our military, he says, “I picture tanks and weapons,” and you’re saying that’s almost charmingly outdated.

Seth Moulton: He’s just talking about the number of ships and aircraft carriers we have. The number of ships and planes we have—literally saying that we need a bigger Navy, just numbers of ships. We need more airplanes. He’s not even talking about resourcing the 18-year-old infantry guys who are out there in the fight. So, he’s two steps behind the times. Then the next thing that we need to talk about is, is our military really equipped to meet this generation of threats and then how are we using our military? And do we actually have a long-term strategy for the places where we’re asking guys and gals to risk their lives?

GOOD: You’ve come out strongly against Donald Trump. As a politician and war veteran, what are your biggest concerns?

Seth Moulton: A few things: One, it’s concerning to me that despite how fundamentally immoral and un-American Donald Trump is, he still has a strong base of support. The second thing that concerns me is you always got to wonder about the accuracy of these polls in the states where it’s still close, even if Clinton’s ahead, being a couple of points ahead shouldn’t be enough to give anyone confidence. The third thing that concerns me is the outside meddling in this election by groups like WikiLeaks. And given that they have a clearly deliberate timeline for releasing things against the Clinton campaign we just don’t know what more they might release or even whether it’s accurate.

GOOD: You’re out there—you’re meeting a lot of people. You’re probably meeting Trump supporters. For those of us in a liberal bubble, help us understand what Trump supporters feel and find empathy.

Seth Moulton: A lot of Americans feel disenfranchised right now. They feel like Washington isn’t speaking to them. They feel they have not been a part of this economic recovery, which in many cases is true.

This election shows that a lot of people are not willing to listen to the facts and that Trump can succeed by literally lying every minute of the day and that’s frightening.

And there are some structural shifts happening in our economy that are leaving a lot of people out that in some ways are not caused by Washington, but to which Washington hasn’t really responded. If you think about what’s happened, the irony though is that the number one reason why Washington isn’t affected today is because of the Tea Party. The scariest thing for a guy like me is that this election shows that a lot of people are not willing to listen to the facts and that Trump can succeed by literally lying every minute of the day—and that’s frightening. Because what I try to do is never cater to the base, I never pander to people. I just try to tell the straight truth. And I know that not everybody’s going to agree with me, but I want people to just respect my judgment and trust me as a leader and expect me to always be honest and explain my positions.

GOOD: What is the thing that you are most shit-scared of right now at 4 a.m.? Like, your eyes pop open—what is it you’re thinking about?

Seth Moulton: A terrorist that acquires a weapon of mass destruction, and we have done a lot to try to prevent that, but we have not done enough. And nuclear proliferation is a serious concern and terrorism is a serious concern, not because of the number of people who could be killed, although with a properly used weapon of mass destruction, obviously you could kill a lot of people. But today in America your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are lower than your chances of dying from a tree limb as you walk down the street. But the problem is: tree limbs falling on people do not make us change our values and terrorism could—terrorism can. And if this country is going to survive and thrive, we need to make sure we never forget who we are as Americans. Trump is trying to make us forget who we are as Americans in this campaign, and that’s what’s frightening about this election. When I was a Marine officer working under George W. Bush, I didn’t vote for him; I didn’t agree with his war; I disagreed with him on a lot of fundamental, political, and I think moral views, but I always trusted him as my commander in chief to at least act on our American interests. And I can’t say that about Trump. I could say that about Romney, I could say that about McCain, I cannot say that about Donald Trump, and that’s why he is such a threat to our democracy.

GOOD: Have you thought about what happens when you meet Trump? I’m presuming that hasn’t happened yet, but you’re a straight shooter what do you say?

Seth Moulton: I’ve never been asked that question and I have literally not spent a moment thinking about it, because I have spent every moment that I can just making sure it doesn’t have to happen.

GOOD: You meet a lot of younger people—you’re a millennial yourself. There’s a perception of apathy—or is that a generation written off unfairly?

Seth Moulton: What I worry about millennials is whether or not we have grit. Because it’s wonderful that millennials want to serve. I think we still have to prove whether we can serve when it gets really tough. There was a frightening survey recently that was said around 70 or 80 percent of millennials think ISIS is a serious threat, but only 30 percent were actually willing to volunteer themselves. There are a lot of jobs to be done fighting ISIS that have nothing to do with killing anybody. I’m not saying everybody should go in the military, but what I am saying is that we’ve got to be willing to step up to the plate when the going gets tough—not just when it’s a fun thing to do.

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Outspoken Iraq War Veteran-Turned-Congressman On What Scares Him More—Terrorism Or Trump?