Interview: Sam Brownback
Sam Brownback, 53, has earned a reputation as one of Israel’s most solid supporters in Washington. During two terms in the United States Senate, the Kansas Republican has served on the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees. A lawyer by profession, he previously served two terms in the House of Representatives. His direct, plain-spoken manner likely comes from his family-farm roots. In 2008, he competed in the Republican presidential primaries. This year, rather than seek reelection to the Senate, he is running for governor of Kansas.
Q. Many have described 2010 as the year of decision on whether the world would allow Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities. With the year more than two-thirds behind us, have we given up hope on this issue?
A. Our intelligence leadership now says [Iran has] got enough material for two nuclear weapons. We may assume they’re in position to go ahead and develop [them]. I don’t think we should conclude that the world has decided to allow them to have nuclear weapons. Sanctions are starting to kick in. We hope this will bring political pressure—internally to Iran and to its regime, which is a military dictatorship.
But if pressure from sanctions doesn’t work…then the question will be, what further steps will be taken and will military action ensue?
Q. Are you pessimistic, or do you still think it can end well?
A. I have some optimism, but it may involve Israel taking aggressive action, even military action. I’ve never ruled that out, because the Israelis did that in Iraq previously under Saddam Hussein, and they did it again in Syria more recently. In both cases, the world community’s reaction was, “That’s terrible, but we’re glad you did it.” If we just let Iran go ahead and develop a nuclear weapon, we then have Jordan, [which is already] doing research on nuclear weapons. In all likelihood next would be the Saudis, followed by Egypt. If that cat gets out of the bag, there’s a bunch of bags in the region with other cats trying hard to get out.
Q. What is your take on the American policy toward Israel during President Obama’s first two years in office?
A. I’m going to bifurcate that, because both Congress and the American public are very close to the Israeli people. They support the Israelis, and that is reflected in poll numbers and in my own experiences as I travel throughout the country. I’ve invited Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to come to Kansas to give a major lecture. He would undoubtedly get a huge crowd of very supportive people.
The people understand what Israel’s up against. That perspective is firmly held also here in Congress. The administration, on the other hand, has taken a very aggressive attitude that is negative toward its friends and more positive toward its enemies. This approach confuses everybody. I don’t think it produces positive results. That is why you need to pay attention to both arenas, because the American people are weighing in on this, too.
Q. What can America do to help resist the intensifying global effort to delegitimize, even demonize, Israel?
A. I think America has a very important role to play in stemming that tide. We can and must stand up and speak out for Israel in all international bodies. We must meet accusations with strong support. It is essential for the government to be more positive toward Israel, treating her as the ally that she is. [Israel] is one of the strongest allies the United States has, certainly in the Middle East.
Q. The United States has acquired land in Jerusalem on which to erect its embassy as circumstances permit. Do you ever see that really happening?
A. I believe it is going to happen. I’ve been pushing for some time to make it happen. Moreover, I think it should take place in the context of the continuing discussion about a two-state solution.
Q. Since Oslo and even before, a primary mantra in the peace process has been land for peace—that is, Israel giving land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. Are you skeptical of that established approach?
A. To me it’s pretty straightforward. Giving up land does not produce peace. Land is a more permanent part of the equation, while peace can be more of a thermostat, measuring relations between nations at a given moment, sometimes stronger and sometimes not so much. Thermostats can be adjusted according to changing conditions. Land cannot be. That’s why I propose a different conceptual formula.
I would like to see Israel making an agreement with Jordan. Were we to establish a separate state within a Jordanian confederation, [that would] mean a place for the Palestinians in the West Bank. In Jordan, you at least have a stable partner that you can…work with. Jordan has a stable government, and the Palestinians have not shown a matching ability or control in either [Hamas-ruled] Gaza or the West Bank. It also happens to be something that can actually have longer term durability, based on governments of some size and stability, on both sides, negotiating as stable state players, rather than as a destabilized Palestinian organization that has not yet truly demonstrated an ability to govern. Despite billions of dollars in international aid and years of global support, they’ve just not been able to do it.
Q. To break the stalemate, what do you think would be the best single step for Israel to take to further peace at this point?
A. I think it would be presumptuous to offer counsel to Bibi Netanyahu. He’s a smart man and a wise tactician. If I had one thought to share, it would be to advise Israel to stand firm on defensible ground. I wouldn’t give in on topics that may look good to the outside world, or perhaps be seen as a nod to U.S. pressures yet do not make sense on the ground in Israel. Of course, I know that stand risks some international opinion moving against him. But I’ve found it is always best to do the right thing. Take a defensible position and stick to it. Eventually the facts come out, people examine them and say, “Well, O.K., yeah, I guess what you’re doing really does make sense.”
Q. After your many visits to Israel, what would you point to as the most striking national characteristic?
A. That’s hard to say because there are so many of them. Israelis are a very accomplished group of people, very intense, very loyal to [their country] and the cause. I immensely admire the Israeli people for what they have done in such a short period of time. In fact, it is beyond belief in many respects, that for 1,900 years they were dispossessed from the land, and today they are back home. I cannot think of any other people in the world that was distanced from their land who remain intact as a distinct people even 200 years later.
I will forever remember the night that thought struck me. I was at a hotel in Jerusalem looking out over the Old City and the Star of David [on the flag] was fluttering there. I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind: “Back after all this time.” It is an event of nothing less than biblical proportion.
Q. After serving two terms in the Senate and enjoying popularity back home, why did you decide to leave the Senate in 2010?
A. I gave a term-limits pledge the first time I ran in 1996. I pledged to do no more than two terms if the people would elect me, and we’re now at that point. Of course, a number of people said to me, “Well, yeah, everybody makes those sorts of promises on term limits.” In my case, I said it, I meant it and now I’m seeking other ways of serving the public…. I think everybody in elective office should have term limits. I think the Supreme Court should be on term limits. We’d be better off if we had regular turnover of people going on: You go in, you hit the system hard with your ideas, you work diligently at it, but you know that there is an end point on the calendar. This creates a permanent intensity and a focus and an energy that is vitally important.