Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) discussed Syria, bipartisanship, Robert Mueller, religion, and more with Pacific Council members at the Global Los Angeles Summit. The discussion was moderated by LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
"In the next few years we as Americans need to work out our view of the United States’ role in the world," said Coons. "Are we an optimistic nation that has open arms and rather than walls builds bridges and welcomes in immigrants and trade, or are we a retrenching and isolationist nation whose view of our engagement with the world is that we’ve been had? That all these trade arrangements like NAFTA and TPP, all these multilateral organizations like NATO and the UN, are frankly just an excuse to overextend and weaken America? These are two sharply different views."
Coons said that he believes the very people that populism says it represents and will save are in fact better served by globalization.
"They are better served by embracing the opportunities of the 21st century and by not being misled into thinking that NAFTA is what destroyed manufacturing," he said, "but instead having a clear-eyed view that at the end of the day when the United States has embraced change and leaned into it, we are better situated to win than any society on earth."
"The city of Los Angeles is the exemplar and role model for our nation: outward-looking, optimistic, creative, and confident that it does better when we are connected to the world."
Coons also touted Los Angeles as the "main city driving America’s connection to the rest of the world," a city that will a play a defining role in determining what kind of country the United States will be in the 21st century.
"LA has everything from financial services to a creative community to a manufacturing community to hospitals to universities," he said. "The city of Los Angeles is the exemplar and role model for our nation: outward-looking, optimistic, creative, and confident that it does better when we are connected to the world."
On foreign aid and the Sustainable Development Goals
Coons said the Sustainable Development Goals are important because they represent a global consensus on what the international community wants to achieve and why. He also discussed why U.S. foreign aid is so important, and how much of a difference that aid makes around the world.
"There’s a large number of Americans who believe that we spend a huge amount of our budget—like 40 or 50 percent—on foreign aid. It’s actually less than 1 percent," he said. "There are a lot of Americans who think that our aid doesn’t have an impact. The difference we make in Africa through foreign aid, PEPFAR, and other programs is huge. That used to be a bipartisan effort."
Coons pointed out that President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program has saved millions of lives in Africa and changed the trajectory of a global pandemic, and that the program is measured, accountable, and delivering. He pointed out that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is a development initiative that also has measurable outcomes and requires governments to improve on transparency, corruption, and free press in order to be a U.S. partner.
"How do you sustain bipartisanship? You have to be willing to take some risks yourself first, and compromise, compromise, compromise."
"As soon as Obama became president, he supported and sustained PEPFAR and MCC," he said. "What will be the Trump administration’s most remembered and most important initiative with regard to Africa? The Build Act, a bipartisan bill which is designed to meet one of the SDGs, the delivery of private finance and the pursuit of development. We’re modernizing OPEC by doubling its authorization at 20 years, allowing it to take equity position for the first time, issue loans in local currency for the first time, and have non-U.S. national investors for the first time. Through this new development finance tool, there can be an aggravated investment by the diaspora community of a certain country in the United States. We need to match China’s biggest tool in the developing world: development finance and concessional loans."
On bipartisanship and Robert Mueller
Coons lamented how difficult it has become in today’s political climate to pass bipartisan bills. Ultimately, he argued, it can be done, but only by being respectful and not questioning the motives of the other side. He cited a recent bill—designed to protect Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his investigation—that Coons co-sponsored with Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC).
"Senator Tillis and I disagree on 90 percent of the issues," said Coons, "but by being respectful, by never questioning his motives even when disagreeing with him on policy, I created an opening, such that last fall when our president was unexpectedly harassing the attorney general on Twitter and undermining Robert Mueller, Tillis is the one who came to me and said, ‘I think we need to do something to protect the special counsel and his investigation.’ I said, ‘Well, great. Do you want us to get our lawyers together over the next couple of weeks and explore some options?’ He said, ‘No, damnit, now.’ We introduced a bill the next day. That kind of window only opens when you extend your hand and keep your heart open to the reality that the person on the other side of the aisle is a complex, flawed, graceful person who is capable of leadership every bit as much as you are."
Coons added that the way Americans can find a way forward is through humility, persistence, bipartisanship, and a willingness to compromise.
"That means a willingness to disappoint and even upset my own home state base," he said. "Because if I really want Thom Tillis to do something that no other member of his caucus except Senator Lindsey Graham has done, which is stick his neck out and get yelled at by the president, then I’ve got to be willing to do it, too. For example, if in my gut I think we should be in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even though it’s unpopular in my caucus and it gets me in lots of trouble at home, I should stand up and say, ‘At the end of the day, free trade is the right thing to do.’ I shouldn’t just say it in LA, I should say it at home. How do you sustain bipartisanship? You have to be willing to take some risks yourself first, and compromise, compromise, compromise. Our citizenry needs to hear what compromise requires, more than we’ve told them."
In practice, he said this means he has had to make compromises of his own in an effort to garner Republican support for the special counsel.
"I recognize that in asking a Republican senator to take direct action against their party’s president, I’m asking a lot," said Coons. "But it is exactly what I’m asking, urgently, privately, every day. I’m saying, ‘Do you think firing Bob Mueller or Rod Rosenstein is a bad idea?’ ‘Yes, absolutely,’ they say. There isn’t a single Republican senator who believes that Mueller, a Republican’s Republican, a United States Marine Corps-decorated combat veteran, former FBI director appointed by a Republican president, is somehow not a principled law enforcement leader."
"What will you do to save our democracy? Does it matter to you? Is it more than just another tweet? Is it more than just a distraction? What are you willing to do? I’m hoping we’re all going to pay attention to that question in the coming weeks."
Coons added that it’s possible Mueller may not find evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election, a result that he would accept as long as Mueller’s investigation is allowed to continue to its natural conclusion. He pointed out that right now Americans have diametrically opposed views about an ongoing federal investigation, which he added is risky for the entire nation and its future.
"So I urgently beg my Republican colleagues to join our bill to protect Mueller and his investigation," he said. "What will you do to save our democracy? Does it matter to you? Is it more than just another tweet? Is it more than just a distraction? What are you willing to do? I’m hoping we’re all going to pay attention to that question in the coming weeks."
Coons said that the crisis in Syria is a tragedy for which the United States bears some responsibility, even culpability.
"When Assad first used chemical weapons, I voted for an authorization for the use of military force," he said. "Why President Obama did not use that tool at that time is a long discussion. But I think great powers don’t bluff. When you draw a line in the sand and don’t act, you encourage our enemies and you confuse our allies. The only shouting match I ever had with President Obama, with whom I’m otherwise very close and worked well with on a lot of things, was over that one decision. Now, he has access to more intelligence and details than I do, so I should know better than to second guess. But over the ensuing years, we failed to engage and stand up and as a result the Russians took advantage of the vacuum, the Iranians have flooded in, and the situation right now is an unholy mess."
"The American people are sick of war in southeast Asia and the Middle East. I’m very clear on that. But Iran and Russia are not our allies or friends, and we have emboldened them in unforgivable ways by leaving open this tragic space [in Syria]."
Coons said he was deeply confused three weeks ago when President Trump said he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.
"I thought, as did many in the Senate, having put U.S. troops into Syria, having allied ourselves with the Kurds, having watched them fight bravely as they took over much of what was ISIL ground, why would we now leave? Because the only resolution in Syria is going to be at a negotiating table, and the only way we have any leverage at that table is to be on the ground, engaged, and a partner," he said. "The American people are sick of war in southeast Asia and the Middle East. I’m very clear on that. I think every day about the cost of these incredible, long wars. But Iran and Russia are not our allies or friends, and we have emboldened them in unforgivable ways by leaving open this tragic space. It is a mark on who we are as a people. When we reengage, even though messy, costly, and dangerous, we will earn our place in leadership in the world again. If we don’t, then shame on us."
As Coons was discussing the potential of a U.S. strike on Syria, President Trump announced in an address broadcast live to the nation that he had ordered missile strikes against specific targets in Syria. The move came in response to accusations that the Syrian government conducted another chemical weapons attack on civilians.
After being asked about Americans’ misunderstanding of Islam, Coons called for all Americans to be more aware of other people’s beliefs, customs, and cultures.
"We need to fight bigotry and ignorance where we can and speak respectfully about a religion that is about peace, not war, and understand what Islam is and isn’t," he said.
He added that he was concerned with comments about Islam made by CIA Director Mike Pompeo—who is currently undergoing confirmation hearings in the Senate to be the next U.S. Secretary of State—during his campaign and as a congressman after 9/11 and the Boston bombing. Coons later announced his opposition to Pompeo as Secretary of State.
"While he has apologized for what were some unmeasured and overreaching comments, the damage of that is lasting, in the sense of difference and disconnect that it creates around the world," said Coons. "We need to be bold, loving, and forgiving. Approaches such as President Trump’s travel ban will not make America safer."
Coons pointed out that all three of the "great Abrahamic faiths have strands that are moving in directions that are driving us farther apart, that marginalize us from each other, and that build walls. The only way to undo this is to embrace what really is the core message of these three faiths, which is that justice is only achieved when the stranger and the foreigner is welcomed and loved, that we are only living by our faith when we love others as ourselves, and that our definition of family has to be expanded to include not just neighbors but those who scare us and those who are different from us until we see them truly as our own family."
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.