Interview with Jeff Sessions: U.S. and Europe "Have to Unify" Against Russia

Interview with Jeff Sessions: U.S. and Europe "Have to Unify" Against Russia
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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) sounded notes of sharp concern last weekend at the Brussels Forum conference. He chided European states on their defense spending levels, saying plainly that Europe needs to do more. Speaking on a panel about Transatlantic trade, Sessions issued a warning about the unintended consequences of some European countries' decisions to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is widely seen as Beijing's counter to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

We caught up with Sessions on the sidelines of the conference. The senator said that Russian action will teach Europe the lessons about military preparedness that American statements can't impart; and he argued that the U.S. Congress has to push back against the Obama administration on Iran.

Yesterday you made some interesting comments about European countries joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Could you elaborate on that? What are your worries about these countries possibly signing on to a China-led consensus in this respect?

Sessions: Well I though it was unfortunate that it took the United States by surprise and that our government felt obligated to push back and criticize a decision. Number one, if you're going to partner with another nation to provide economic funding and other benefits for development to nations around the world in a charitable way, I would think you'd want to partner with people who share your values first - and we've always done that. The Europeans and the United States have been part of the World Bank and the IMF and have worked together. If Europeans want to give more money to that effort, I would think they'd want to give it through those institutions that are in existence. 

Is this China moving in on U.S. turf, or is it more subtle than that?

Sessions: I think they like to try to spin it that way. Apparently they enjoy rubbing the United States' nose in it, and mocking in their public statements, which I think is offensive. China does not have a record in any way historically of reaching out to distant parts of the world to help them progress. It's always been China-centered. I was offended by China's comments, I thought they were unnecessary, when their history does not justify their claim of moral superiority. But you know, China has become more wealthy and become more internationally sophisticated. It's important to the world that China develops in a positive way. That's one of the major events of the next 20, 30 years: Will China develop in a more positive way, or in a more negative way?

What should the U.S. response be? Should we be openly criticizing the United Kingdom, for example, for going along with this?

Sessions: I think we did. But I don't know if it's worthy of a continuing debate. The UK has every right to join with who they want to. But I presume they'd like to continue to benefit from the American umbrella; our military power. Of the Europe-United States defense budget, the United States spends 70 percent, Europe spends 30, and they just go to bed at night assuming they have the total support of the United States.

You were very pointed about this topic, about the EU not spending enough money on defense. But how do you speak to not just the leaders but the peoples of Europe, and convince them that it is in their best interest to make this a priority?

Sessions: Well, Germany just increased their defense budget, which is noteworthy, and somewhat surprising based on long-term trends. So, more than statements from the United States, actions from Russia I think resulted in that. So world reality probably will have a better prospect of changing Europe. But Europe can't be naive. They can't be naive about the threat and the fact that they need to adequately support their militaries. Now it's also critically important that they spend their money wisely. In the past they haven't. One reason we have such a powerful, dominant military is because we have a total military force. We're able to defend America, project power. We have aircraft, missiles, satellites, bombs, ships, all of which no other nation in the world can compete with. In addition to that we have a battle-hardened leadership. Europe is pretty far away from that.

What do you expect next from Russia?

Sessions: Well, there's a danger that they may continue this overreach. They just solidified power in Georgia, in South Ossetia. That was I think in the last week. Pressure is still on Ukraine. We don't know whether the Minsk Agreement will hold, I don't think it's holding very well now. We have the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Romanians, they're very worried. This is reality, I wish it weren't, but I'm afraid it is. It needs to be clear that Russia knows that there will be a high price to pay if this behavior continues.

If Minsk breaks down, at what point does the president have to act and supply Ukraine with lethal weaponry? What is the breaking point? We know from what Victoria Nuland said that the administration hasn't decided yet.

Sessions: From what I understand from this conference, I think it's clear that Germany has said publicly that they will support harsher sanctions and more military support if the Minsk Agreement fails. And that will be key. Merkel has worked very very hard to establish a relationship with Putin and Russia. It's been a good-faith effort. If it fails, I would hope that Europe and the United States would have to unify and push back more firmly against Russian overreach.

The letter from U.S. Congressmen to Iranian leadership that you also signed has come in for a good amount of criticism. Do you still think it was an appropriate move?

Well, it reflects a very deep concern by members of the Congress about the nature of the Iranian negotiation, and the fact that the president is working in every way possible to execute an agreement that shuts Congress out of the process. One person yesterday of Democratic political ancestry pointed out how Reagan took bipartisan members of Congress to participate in discussions of treaties and built support that way. These secret negotiations, with the Europeans releasing more information about it than our government has - our government talking with NATO and Europe and other people around the world and not discussing with Congress - this is a very serious error. This is a treaty of huge importance. We are not getting anything but ineffective briefings that have produced no confidence in Congress that we are getting the full story.

It's difficult for me to overstate how dangerous an error in the treaty with Iran can be for the whole world. The Middle East, Israel, the United States - it would be a catastrophe for nuclear proliferation if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. So it needs to be stopped. It's the policy of the United States that they not have a nuclear weapon, as President Obama has repeatedly stated. And yet he's allowed the negotiations to move ever closer to that end, which is unthinkable.

(AP photo)

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