An Interview with Dana Rohrabacher about Russia, Turkey and Trump
Editor’s Note: The National Interest reporter-intern Dimitri A. Simes spoke with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in his office. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation:
NI: Let’s start off with yesterday’s special elections. Obviously, the GOP won some major victories in Georgia and South Carolina. The one in Georgia was especially under scrutiny because many people viewed it as a referendum on President Trump. How much clout does Trump have on Capitol Hill after these victories?
DR: I think his leverage has gone up now that people know that we can expect that at least Republicans in Republican seats will be reelected. I think this has given confidence to those people. There were a lot of Republicans worried that, “Oh my gosh, this Republican seat will be lost because of Trump!” We’ll see how this will affect people in competitive seats, but I think it ought to give Trump more leverage.
NI: In addition to special elections, another important development has been the increase in tensions between the United States and Russia. There was the United States shooting down a Syrian government plane in Syria, several tense encounters between U.S. planes and Russian planes in the Baltics. What is your general assessment of the state of U.S.-Russian relations right now?
DR: Right now, the Russian-American relations are as low as they’ve been since the end of the Cold War, and actually probably even lower than some of the latter portions of the Cold War. I think that there are faults on both sides, but I think there is a strong desire among a significant number of people on the left and right to have Russia as an enemy. Some of them, I believe, want to go to war with Russia. There are others who are just honestly concerned and have been caught up in what I consider to be a blizzard of false analysis. Some of it is true, but it is always done with a much more sinister tone than is necessarily required in those instances. We end up with a hostility that doesn’t need to exist. When you have planes in an area with the Russians on one side and us on the other, that is a very dangerous situation and we should not take it lightly.
NI: Since you brought up the point about the bipartisan nature of the move towards a tougher stance towards Russia, your colleagues in the Senate last week overwhelmingly passed legislation to institute additional sanctions against Russia. What are the prospects of similar legislation being passed in the in House in the near future?
DR: I think the chances are highly likely that this will happen. It is also highly likely that I will be one of the few people to aggressively oppose it.
NI: What sort of actions could we expect from those who are opposing it?
DR: Well, there’s very few people opposing it. You could expect people opposing it to try and get some friends and convince people that we’re right. I think busting through this blizzard of falsehood and sinister twisting of facts is going to be very difficult. But, the American people are turning around right now on this issue. A lot of people in the past, mainly Republicans, have been relying on the anti-Communism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and during that whole time period, Communism disintegrated. It’s a different force. It’s not a democratic force in Russia, but it’s not a Communist force. Those people on the right wing will play a major role, however, some on the right are starting to say, “Hey this isn’t Communism anymore. These radical Muslims are our real enemy.” There’s also a lot of people on the left beginning to realize that this is nothing but an orchestrated, unrelenting attempt to make America and Russia enemies rather than cooperators. You know, you can cooperate with people when you have differences, different goals in mind, but you can find areas of cooperation. What we have now is a goal to not have cooperation and to destroy any attempt at trying to establish better ties. That’s what this bill in the Senate is all about. What we are going to see is a manifestation of the fact that you people on the left, who are traditionally antiwar, like Oliver Stone, and on the right, who realize that this isn’t Communism anymore. More and more of them are going to start emerging and saying, “No, no. This is not Communism. My vision is now a lot clearer.”
NI: What’s the current consensus in the House regarding the existing Russia sanctions. Do your colleagues feel that they have been effective in deterring Russia?
DR: I don’t see how they could possibly think that, but I don’t know. Maybe they do. Maybe they’re deluding themselves, but I don’t think there was ever a plan for Russia to invade the Baltics, which we heard over and over again. I also don’t believe there was ever a Russian plan to invade the rest of Ukraine, which I heard over and over again. They may think that America has been making lots of noise, sending NATO people into Ukraine, training all these Ukrainians, promising more tanks for Europe next year, and sending these B-52 bombers aimed at Russia in mock nuclear attacks, and that maybe these things had an impact on Russia. I don’t think so. I don’t think Russia ever intended to do those bad things. Putin may be an authoritarian, but he’s not stupid. He can’t even afford the modest things he’s doing now.
NI: If President Trump wants to pursue a more cooperative relationship with Russia, what would he have to do to gain the support of House Republicans in this endeavor?
DR: It’s going to be very difficult, but we’d have to show—and I’ve been trying to express this, but I can’t do this on my own—that we have to prioritize what evil we are fighting. Is it going to be the primary threat, the evil that threatens our safety and security? Or is it something down here, that’s not acceptable in terms of how they run their government? I think Republicans are going to have to be convinced that Russia can be helpful to us in defeating radical Islam. If you can’t make that argument, then Republicans will sit comfortably back in their wisdom of thirty or forty years ago of how to deal with the Soviet Union, and think that’s how we deal with Russia. You have to convince these people that this is a new world. It’s not Russia that’s threatening us, it’s radical Islam, and we need Russia with us in that battle.
NI. An additional challenge for the president is that he is under a lot of scrutiny over allegations of potential Russian collusion, obstruction of justice. What sort of sentiment do you get from fellow House Republicans when it comes to this issue? Are they rallied behind the president? Are they becoming increasingly worried that the president might be making either strategic—or may have made some kind of moral mistakes?
DR: I can’t speak for all House Republicans, but I can say that they’re clearly upset that this issue has been used by the Democrats to obstruct our ability to have a Republican agenda going through the Congress. It’s taken the public’s focus away from the things that we’re doing here, and we’re very concerned about that. We certainly don’t believe that there is a Russian connection, but the image of that is being used to restrict our ability to achieve our legislative goals right now.
NI: Turning to the Middle East, you have been very critical of Turkish president Erdogan, even calling for him to be barred from the United States. Given that country’s recent domestic and foreign-policy developments, how do you and other House Republicans assess the U.S.-Turkish relationship?
DR: I used to be Erdogan’s apologist in the sense that people would say, “Oh he’s a Muslim, blah blah,” and I would go, “No, no, he is committed to democracy.” I’ve read his materials and speeches, and they were very prodemocratic. He just talked about wanting Islam and democracy to interact together in the same government. I was very excited about that because I thought that would help bring peace between the West and the Muslim world. But, what’s happened is Erdogan is proving that it was just the opposite. Erdogan is proving that even someone like Erdogan, who was committed to democracy and Islam, can eliminate democracy with an iron fist and embrace a radical-Islamic approach. I think that is something that is horribly depressing, but something we have to deal with. We cannot continue dealing with him as if he is who we thought he was back then. Now, was he pretending to be a more democratic and committed to the West back then or was he really that way and has evolved into another frame of mind? I don’t know, but all I know is that now, with his frame of mind, he’s our enemy, he’s an enemy of the West. He will be doing things that undermine our security and create instability in our world.
NI: If Erdogan is considered an enemy of the West, as you stated, what sort of measures might be taken against him? After all, Turkey is a NATO ally, so breaking ties with them would be very difficult.
DR: That’s the first thing you do: Kick them out of NATO. NATO is supposed to have democratic governance and Turkey does not. Turkey has tens and thousands of people in prison, who were running their newspapers and were political party people, so this is not a democratic country anymore. It should immediately be removed from NATO. If at that point things don’t change in Turkey, we should do our best then to start supporting the Kurds and the other folks in Turkey that would prefer not be under the thumb of Ankara.
NI: You were recently quoted as stating at a hearing that ISIS’s attack on Tehran may have been a “good thing,” which caused a lot of attention. Could you elaborate on that remark?
DR: Actually, the remark was intended, but I didn’t get a chance to finish my sentence, that it wasn’t a good thing. We never say that anyone attacking innocent civilians is doing a good thing. That’s obviously not a good thing, no matter who it is. But, we have a situation, which is all I knew at that moment, where the Mausoleum of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the government parliament were attacked by radical Sunnis. Now, that is the Shia center of power, and I might add that no one in Iran can be elected unless they are approved by these radical Islamic mullahs that control that country with an iron fist. So, the parliament building is a symbol of their power and the mausoleum is the equivalent of Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. I certainly think that’s something that the people there should think about eliminating someday. So, that statement, which was cut off, if I had thirty more seconds no one would have been upset with it, thinking that I support terrorist attacks. But, I do prefer conflict between terrorist organizations, rather than have those terrorist organizations targeting others.
NI: Are you concerned that if Iran perceives that the United States is encouraging attacks against it, then that may cause blowback against the United States itself and our interests in the region more broadly?
DR: I think we should be aggressively supporting those people in the Middle East who oppose radical Islamic regimes, whether it be Erdogan, the mullahs in Iran or perhaps even countries like Saudi Arabia. We just saw a change in leadership there. If the new man starts going in the wrong direction, and the Saudis have already been in the wrong direction for quite a long time, then we should not be afraid to support people who oppose that regime, meaning not go in ourselves, but at least let them know that we are not going to be bolstering the radical Islamic dictatorship when there is a positive alternative there. If he starts improving things, then this won’t apply to Saudi Arabia. I don’t care if the mullahs get mad at us and try to retaliate. I think the mullahs are doing everything they can to hurt us already—for years—and I think that’s true with ISIS as well. The meaning of my remark the other day was that it’s good to have people who hate us and are radical Islamists fighting each other rather than spending their time and resources attacking the people of the United States or any other people who are not radical Islamists.
NI: You mentioned Saudi Arabia as a state that is of potential concern for the United States. How widespread among your colleagues is your apprehension about Saudi Arabia? If it is widespread, how might it manifest itself in response to President Trump’s moves to grow closer with Saudi Arabia?
DR: I think there is a lot of apprehension about trying to get closer to Saudi Arabia. Most people know that Saudis are financing and have financed the creation of a radical Islamic movement in these last few decades. They’ve been financing the madrassa schools that are churning out the radical Muslims. They have been financing Pakistan and its proradical position. They’ve financed the 9/11 attack on the United States for God’s sakes! So, there has been a lot of apprehension about that. I think what people right now are hoping that Donald Trump, with all of his brashness and boisterous way of handling himself, can actually break through to these people and get an actual change, whereas someone who is more diplomatic, less aggressive and more accommodating couldn’t have an impact. But people now think with Trump being different than what we’ve had in dealing with the Saudis, he might break through. When I saw him at the great meeting hall in Riyadh, with all these leaders from around the region as well as all the Saudi leaders, telling them that “if you want to be friends of the United States, you gotta drive the terrorists out of your mosques.” I don’t know any other president who has said anything like that. He’s really direct, and that might be the way to do it. It worked when we did it with Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan said to tear down the wall, and all his senior staffers were going nuts and tried everything they could to stop him from saying it. Well, he said it anyway, and it had a major impact on the world and on history. Maybe having a brash guy like we’ve got now as president may break down some walls too. When he said, “Drive them out of your mosques. Drive them out of your country,” those words may well go down in history.
Image: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) speaks during a House Foreign Affairs Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats Subcommittee hearing about the attack on demonstrators by members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's security detail on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S. May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein.