New House Foreign Affairs Chair On Where U.S. Focus Should Be Abroad

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Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news conference on April 5, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news conference on April 5, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Rep. Eliot Engel, the new chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, announced over the weekend that he will hold hearings into President Trump's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The announcement came after The Washington Post reported that Trump tried to hide details of his conversations with Putin. The Russia investigation is just one of a whole host of issues that Engel, a Democrat from New York, is confronting, including the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

The U.S. military is preparing to pull out of the conflict, after much debate over whether leaving Syria is the right call. Engel (@RepEliotEngel) says it's "a terrible move."

"I think it was an impulse move on behalf of the president," he tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "You just don't know where he stands. I call it 'fly by the seat of your pants diplomacy.' "

Interview Highlights

On why U.S. troops shouldn't leave Syria

"The carnage in Syria — and I have followed it very very closely over the past seven, eight years — has been disgraceful. [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] is a butcher of his own people. Six hundred thousand, 700,000 people have been murdered by the regime. We saw on the Foreign Affairs Committee pictures of corpses that were smuggled out of Syria. It looked like a tragedy out of the Holocaust with the dead bodies. It's just unbelievable.

"It's disgraceful, and the world doesn't have the gumption to realize that this guy is a real bad guy. He's the butcher of his own people. So I think that our pulling out frankly allows some of the allies of Assad to control places in Syria, which are unacceptable, and makes our ally Israel very nervous. They're not going to allow Iran to establish any kind of base, any kind of part of Syria that's near Israel. And I just think that while nobody wants our troops to stay indefinitely any place — and I do not — the fact is you need to. If you're going to work your way out towards leaving, you need to do it in a reasonable way, not just willy-nilly wake up one day and say, 'We're going out.' You know, I know now the president is saying that if Turkey goes after the Kurds, you know, the Kurds are our loyal and trusted allies and friends, they fought side by side with Americans in the Middle East. They, in fact, fought so Americans didn't fight, and American casualties were lower as a result of them. And now you turn on them.

"We cannot be the policemen of the world, and we cannot do things that other countries are unwilling to do, but we need to look at our national interests."

Rep. Eliot Engel on Syria

"The Turks could make a bloodbath and go after the Kurds. Now the president is saying he's warned Turkey that there will be economic consequences for them if they go after the Kurds. But if he hadn't made that speech about leaving Syria, we wouldn't have to worry about this. So if we're going to treat our allies this way, the Kurds, what country in the future will want to align with us? We were an unreliable ally. And I think what the president did in talking about leaving Syria was just wrong, just plain wrong, and I wish it would be reconsidered because I think down the line we're going to have to come back in, and it's going to be worse. Right now, we have the situation under control. There are minimal casualties, minimal, and we are winning that aspect of it. So just to pick up and and walk away is unwise."

On comparisons between Syria and Afghanistan 

"We don't want never-ending commitments for sure, and I would hope that we've learned something from what we did in Afghanistan. But let's also remember that when in Afghanistan once everybody left, it allowed Osama bin Laden and others to plot and plan for 9/11 and other terrorist attacks, and no one went after them. No one disrupted them, and they were able to do that. We don't want a situation like that where any of the terrorist groups have safe haven because we precipitously pulled out.

"We cannot be the policemen of the world, and we cannot do things that other countries are unwilling to do, but we need to look at our national interests. We need to look to see what makes sense for us. If we have things underhand now and a precipitous pullout will cause things to go crazy later on, and then we have to go back in, that's much much worse, much much worse."

On reports Trump considered military options against Iran 

"Everything concerns me in terms of more military options. I don't think we really want to get more involved militarily. On the other hand, we have to always watch Iran with a jaded look because I believe that Iran being the No. 1 U.S. sponsor of terrorism is a maligned player in the region. So we have to look at Iran very carefully, but I'm not for starting a war with them. I think that we need to let them know that we're watching, and there are certain lines that we're drawing that we can't allow them to continue.

"I think a war with Iran would be a folly. On the other hand, I think that we cannot just let Iran continue to finance terrorism and do a lot of things that we don't like. And I think by the way that we need to work in conjunction with our traditional allies, our allies in NATO — the U.K., France, Germany — but I don't think anyone is looking for further military involvement by the United States, certainly not me."

"China's been pretty aggressive. We have to watch them. On the other hand, we need to work with them."

Rep. Eliot Engel

On the Trump administration's approach to the trade war with China 

"Well, the relationship with China is very very complicated. At the one hand, they are doing things that are not what we feel they should be doing. On the other hand, they are very important country that we need to have a relationship with. So I think the way you deal with the Chinese is you need to be tough with them, but you need to talk with them and plan with them. And we don't need provocative measures on either side, but we have to keep an eye on the Chinese. They are restricting a number of things in Asia. They're making all kinds of false claims, wild claims. Countries like Vietnam have turned to the United States for help and other countries, Philippines. So China's been pretty aggressive. We have to watch them. On the other hand, we need to work with them."

On the U.S. role in global foreign affairs

"We need to think about what we do. We can't be willy-nilly and just involve ourselves. You know, you can't get into something that you can't get out of. And I think we have to be careful. Look I feel very strongly that the United States has a very important role to play as the leader of the free world. Our alliances — NATO and our allies, the European Union — have worked very well since World War II, in frankly, in holding Russia or then Soviet Union in check. One of the first things that President Trump did when he got elected is he dissed NATO, and said, 'Oh, it's obsolete.' And so our allies that rely on us are very nervous.

"And so I think the United States needs to get back to the point where we're working with our loyal and trusted friends. What confuses me about the president is that he goes out of his way to have an outstretched hand to Putin who as head of Russia is our biggest adversary. And on the other hand, seems to insult the leaders of France, U.K. and Germany, who are our strongest allies."

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on January 14, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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