Has Joe Sestak's Presidential Moment Arrived?

Has Joe Sestak's Presidential Moment Arrived?

The National Interest brings you an exclusive interview with the former Congressman and three-star admiral.


On Sunday, the Democratic nomination gained another entry, growing the current field to an unprecedented twenty-five major candidates. Joe Sestak surprised everyone by his unexpected announcement, just days before the first primary debates.

Sestak served over three decades in the United States Navy, retiring with the rank of three-star admiral. Over the course of his military service, he graduated with a doctorate from Harvard, commanded a carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf, and served as the Director for Defense Policy on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council.


“In 2006, Sestak's defeat of long-time Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon signaled an increasing Democratic trend in suburban Philadelphiaat the time, the collar counties' support for Democratic candidates was driven by disillusionment with the Republican Party during the George W. Bush era,” explained Charles McElwee, assistant editor at City Journal. Sestak was reelected in the heavily Republican district by twenty points in 2008.

He declined reelection to the House to run for the Senate in 2010. His plan was interrupted when longtime liberal Republican incumbent Arlen Spector switched parties; then-Vice President Joe Biden had midwifed the political turnover. “By 2010, when Sestak ran for Senate, he presented himself as an unconventional, anti-establishment candidate who would fight for the working class. He defeated Arlen Specter in the primary, winning every county except Dauphin, Lackawanna, and Philadelphia Counties,” explained McElwee. “And in a year of major Republican victories statewide—from gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett winning 63 of 67 counties to congressional victories and the party securing majorities in the state legislature—Sestak only lost to Pat Toomey by about 80,000 votes.”

Sestak attempted a rematch against Toomey in 2016, reentering the Democratic Senate primary. Despite favorable polling early in the race, he was defeated in the nomination by Katie McGinty, who had been endorsed by President Barack Obama, Vice President Biden, and other party leaders frustrated by Sestak’s tactical choices. CNN analyst Harry Enten referred to Sestak’s loss as “a victory for the party machine.” Six of the seven counties Sestak won in the primary voted for Donald Trump in the general election, and Toomey won reelection by a similar margin as 2010.

Spring-boarding from twin Senate losses to a national campaign, Joe Sestak spoke to the National Interest for an exclusive interview enumerating on several of his foreign policy positions and the general outlook of his campaign.

“I think one of the worst things that is happening today is that America is retreating from the world; almost behind walls, leaving bruised allies behind,” explained Sestak. “When in fact the world’s greatest generation, World War II, came home from having fought in the second of two world wars in twenty-six years and said, ‘This isn’t gonna happen again to us a third time,’ and built the liberal, rules’ based world order. And by liberal I don’t mean Democratic liberal or anything, I mean a world order based upon human and individual rights, where we cared about the collective duty of the world because it was in our interest. And so, our walking away from that, when it won the third world war, the Cold War, without a shot, and further permitted us as the leader of the world to pursue our interest in conjunction with those who have similar values, is what really permitted our American dream to expand.”

Sestak’s description is reminiscent of President George H.W. Bush’s promise to create a “new world order” after the Cold War, led by the United States and organized through a series of international organizations, agreements, and alliances. The concept of a “liberal, rules-based order” has been criticized as whitewashing American actions abroad, and serving as an excuse for the U.S. government to enforce rules that itself doesn’t follow. This unilateral standard has become more obvious under President Trump and the most impactful member of his administration, National Security Advisor John Bolton.

During the interview, however, Sestak seemed incredibly grounded about the limits of military power, a side effect from his decades of service. “My background has been operating in that world, all around the globe. Understanding that our engagement with the world, backed by our military but led by our diplomacy, has actually given America the protection to have an enhancement of its economy, its healthcare, its education here at home,” he said, adding that he coordinated the national security strategy from the White House in the 1990s. “But the lessons that I’ve also brought from that experience are ones that understand that militaries can stop a problem, but they never can fix a problem. Our military stopped Germany, but we only fixed fascism two years later with the Marshall Plan.”

“I don’t think anybody thinks that that tragic misadventure in Iraq, where both Democrats and Republicans voted for that reckless war, was one where our military fixed Iraq. It stopped a problem: Saddam Hussein. But nobody of those Democrats or Republicans or the president, had an understanding of the world with the limitations of military power. They never knew how it would end before it began,” said the former admiral.

Neither is Sestak afraid to call out American actions that violate the liberal world order he wants to uphold. “Breaking America’s word on the deal when Iran kept theirs is unforgivable,” he said, defending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by President Obama in 2015. “We had convened the world, including Russia and China, to disarm the nuclear weapons capability from Iran. At most they could have rebuilt it in a year, but with the most stringent oversight on it they hadn’t done any of that.” Sestak believes the deal could have served as a starting point to address Iran’s other “nefarious behavior,” but now the United States is back to square one.

With an intricate knowledge that rivals any of the other contenders, Joe Sestak described in detail the difficulties the United States would have if it used a military strike against Iran. “[I]t would take us weeks if not months to destroy it [their nuclear facilities] if we go full bore to do so. Because part of it…is buried under three hundred feet of rock, hard rock.”

A war with Iran would imperil our strategic naval positioning in the area and force us out of the gulf. “We cannot survive in the Persian Gulf with our aircraft carriers. I know, I’ve operated there. There are about two places that we operate because the depth of water to do fight operations is the best right there. Our sonar doesn’t work there in the Persian Gulf and we cannot find their nineteen midget submarines at all. So, we will withdrawal our carrier groups out of the Strait of Hormuz before we even begin to think about striking and have to do it from a greater distance.” While the United States is flying air sorties and launching Tomahawk missiles on Iranian positions, they have the strength to return fire in kind. “[T]hey can rain hundreds of long-range missiles on Israel and our regional bases there.”

Sestak is not in doubt about eventual U.S. victory, but he is deeply skeptical about the costs and wisdom of such an action. “We can do it, to impair their nuclear capability. But after all those weeks are done, and they’re having mined the Straits of Hormuz where 20 percent of the world’s oil comes from, they can rebuild it in four years. Militaries can stop a problem; they don’t fix a problem.” He further doesn’t understand why such a cost has to be contemplated after the successful implementation of the Iran deal. “We had that problem fixed. And it’s inexcusable for America to break its word on a deal when Iran had kept theirs and we had fixed a problem. Now we have harmed our national security.”

The candidate is sensitive about the topic of Israel, having been blasted by the Emergency Committee for Israel (whose board includes former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol) during his 2010 Senate race. “As I said during my campaign, I would have laid down my life for Israel when I was in the military,” says Sestak, adamant that his position is not misunderstood. He described working as an emissary between the Ambassador of Israel and the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, making it available for Israel to purchase one of the then-newly commissioned littoral combat ships. As a Congressman he lobbied for Israel, on their request, to be allowed to develop their Arrow Missile system instead of having to purchase our Aegis system. “The Israeli military came to me through the Ambassador of Israel because they knew I was a true friend and ally to them,” Sestak said, while reiterating that he believes in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sestak had nothing but praise for former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, proudly describing him as a former marine. “I think the nation is fortunate to have a man of integrity, accountability, and nonpartisanship do that study…And I think he was accountable to the deed,” he said of Mueller’s conduct, while finding the report’s conclusions disconcerting. “I think that any indication that a nation such as Russia, who does not have our interest at heart, would even have a perception that they are somehow not being slammed down for intruding on the most blessed sanctity of American democracy, our fair and free elections, is something that goes to my point of why we need to restore U.S. leadership to the world.” Sestak added that the president should have been out in public saying “No, this does not stand.”