Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., stops to speak to members of the media after attending the weekly GOP conference luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., stops to speak to members of the media after attending the weekly GOP conference luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

New Armed Services Chair Says He Will Fund Military, Not Drive Foreign Policy ‘Like McCain Did’

'My job is to make sure we have the resources...I try not to get into debates,’ Inhofe says in an exclusive interview.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is no John McCain — and that’s the way he likes it.

Since his death in August, the one-time presidential candidate has been eulogized as a statesman, a lawmaker deeply involved in U.S. policy abroad and known for his often blistering opinions on foreign affairs. McCain played a particularly outsized role in international politics under President Trump, traveling abroad to reassure jumpy allies and publicly critiquing the president’s isolationist doctrine.

Inhofe, an Army veteran who previously had served as ranking minority member of the committee when Democrats last controlled the Senate, sees his role in more narrow terms: ensure that the U.S. military is adequately resourced, and leave foreign policy to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“My job is to make sure that when we get the information from the ones who are smarter than I am as to where our threats are, my job is to make sure we have the resources to build the military to confront that,” he told Defense One in an interview. “I try not to get into debates with people on the threat that they view. What I can do is say, okay, if that threat is correct, these are the resources we need.

“I don’t come from the orientation—I’m trying not to say, ‘like John McCain did,’ because he enjoyed that a lot more than I did.”

Inhofe in recent weeks has laid out a robust agenda pegged to implementing the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes threats from regional adversaries like Russia and China over the global terrorism threats that have taken precedence since the Sept. 11 attacks. Inhofe has staked out an aggressive negotiating position on the budget, urging the president not to apply a proposed 5 percent cut to the Pentagon and arguing that defense spending should be exempt from budget caps. He has pushed to increase funds to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and prioritize hypersonic weapons testing, warning that the U.S. faces the most dangerous global threat environment in his lifetime (an assessment starkly at odds with his Democratic counterpart in the House).

A staunch ally of the president, Inhofe has nevertheless raised some questions about Trump’s sometimes-freewheeling approach to the Pentagon. In addition to pushing back on the proposed budget cuts in a visit to the White House earlier this month, he has expressed skepticism about the president’s demand for a Space Force as a new military service branch, out of the concern that it would be unnecessary and expensive. And in his first major policy speech as chairman last week, he told reporters that he “cringe[s] a little” whenever Trump tweets, although he defended the president’s practice as the only way to “circumvent a media that hates him.”

Inhofe is reluctant to wade into the question of how the U.S. military is used abroad. He was largely absent from the roiling public debate over a resolution passed Thursday to curtail American military involvement in the Saudi Arabia-led campaign in Yemen, voting against the measure but avoiding the media fray as more junior committee members staked out outspoken roles. Where his soon-to-be counterpart, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the incoming House Armed Services Committee chairman, has said he intends to prioritize rigorous oversight of the use of special operations forces in places like Africa, Inhofe says that his oversight efforts will be concentrated on “areas where it’s been pointed out to us where we are deficient relative to our peer competitors,” like artillery. Asked about the legal authorization for the U.S. presence in Syria — a subject of tense debate in the policy community — Inhofe deferred to the committee of jurisdiction for Congress’s war-making powers.

“Let me clarify something here,” he said. “We do have a Foreign Relations Committee and I have always said, I don’t always want to be in the driver’s seat doing all of our foreign relations.”

Inhofe’s decision to hand off some security policy leadership is almost a 180-degree turn from McCain’s view of the gavel. Although Inhofe shares McCain’s view of an increasingly dangerous and complex threat environment, McCain relished his role in U.S. foreign policy influence and oversight, using his chairmanship and public fame as a highly-visible check on the executive branch. He called more traditional elements of his jurisdiction — like ending sequestration and passing “strategy-driven” defense budgets — his “second priority” in a 2015 speech marking his first 100 days as chairman of the committee. National security policy was his first priority, he said, arguing that “this strategic consideration must inform and drive all others.”

“Ultimately, we need greater American leadership in the world, and Congress can only do so much in this regard. But what we can, and must, do is rebuild the bipartisan consensus in favor of a strong, internationalist foreign policy,” McCain said at the time.

One area in which Inhofe might be expected to take a role on the global stage is on the issue of Africa. The chairman says he will be pushing to move U.S. Africa Command’s headquarters from Germany to Africa, long an objective of the Pentagon but stymied in part by objections from African leaders and activists fearful of the “militarization” of America’s presence there. Inhofe was instrumental in establishing AFRICOM in 2008 as the newest regional combatant command which branched off from U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

“That’s their decision, not ours. There’s a lot of the population out there that thinks of that as colonialism,” Inhofe said. But, “that’s changing as we speak.” Inhofe says he has been in conversations with the leaders of several key African countries and believes support is shifting.

On Afghanistan, Inhofe says that he would be opposed to the complete removal of U.S. troops, as Trump occasionally has suggested.  

Other members of the Armed Services Committee have continued to wade into the foreign policy arena under Inhofe. In particular McCain’s best friend in the Senate, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said that the former chairman before he died told him, “Boy, you’ve got to keep it going.”

Inhofe’s focus dovetails with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ emphasis on readiness.

“I’m from the old school that started in World War II, where we were so unprepared back at the beginning of that war,” Inhofe says.

The lesson that the U.S., and Inhofe, learned: “We were always going to be number one.”

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