Former Senator Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) says the United States needs to deter aggression from Russia and China by projecting strength and determination and making good on promises to its allies.
DeMint, who runs the conservative Heritage Foundation, criticized the Obama administration for not backing up its promises with force during an interview with the Washington Free Beacon, urging the Trump administration to chart a new course on projecting strength and drawing clear "lines in the sand."
"The best way to keep peace is for us to be strong and perceived as strong, clear in what we are going to do and what we expect, and then we have to back that up," DeMint said at the Heritage headquarters in Washington, D.C.
"We don't want to be drawing lines in the sand that we ignore. Once Obama did that in Syria and other places, said things and didn't follow up, the rest of the world basically knew that he wouldn't. So, everyone has been testing us and our allies are nervous," DeMint said.
DeMint downplayed concerns voiced about Trump's handling of both Russia and China, saying that representatives from foreign countries with whom he has met have expressed optimism about the prospects for defense under the new administration.
"Most of the delegations—and we've had a lot of them since the election— that come through here are optimistic that Trump might reestablish America's leadership position in the world and develop our strength to the point where they can count on us to keep their enemies at bay, or at least keep them honest," DeMint said.
Trump has pledged to rebuild America's military by reversing drawdowns of the armed forces set in motion during the Obama administration and ending sequestration that has eroded the defense budget. He has also telegraphed a willingness to pursue warmer relations with Russia, while taking a harder line on China when it comes to trade and the "one China" policy; both suggestions have drawn scrutiny from the press and critics of the Republican president.
DeMint said he suspects Trump is "toying" with Russian President Vladimir Putin and trying to "draw him in" by making positive statements about Moscow's leader. The most recent administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush both tried to improve relations with Russia, to no avail. Many experts describe current tensions between Washington and Moscow as the highest since the Cold War.
"The best thing that Russia could see is a strong and determined U.S. and I think putting any missile systems all around them and convincing them that all of their development is not going to do anything because we have a missile system that could stop anything," DeMint said, referring to the U.S. missile defense shields being deployed to Europe that have drawn ire from Moscow.
"Russia is a threat; we need to try to bring them into some kind of civilized [conversation] but we can't be naïve in the thinking," he said. "They want to dominate their neighborhood and keep Europe in their influence sphere, and they're doing a good job."
DeMint also said Trump is right to "put China on notice" as Beijing continues to build on disputed territories in the South China Sea.
"I don't think it's a bad thing that he's stirring the pot a little bit with China to let them know that they cannot count on the status quo of a passive U.S.," DeMint said. "Obviously, he has to bring that down into some clear policies, but China respects strength."
DeMint, who has led Heritage since 2013 after serving two terms in the Senate, spoke to the Free Beacon two days before Trump's inauguration just blocks away from the U.S. Capitol, outlining the think tank's defense priorities for the new administration. He referenced at length Heritage's Index of U.S. Military Strength, an annual assessment that last November shed light on the declines in American military power.
The individual service chiefs have testified before Congress about how budget cuts have compromised modernization and future readiness, agreeing that the U.S. military would not be able to defend the homeland against present and future threats if sequestration continues. Trump's defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, who was confirmed Friday afternoon, has already committed to ending sequestration.
"It's not just about defending our country," DeMint observed on Wednesday. "We have alliances with so many countries that depend on us that what you see now in our [analysis], it doesn't just expose us. It's got the rest of the world scrambling as to whether or not we could meet our commitments."
"The implications worldwide of America being perceived as weak are huge; it's the quickest way to draw us into some kind of conflict," he later added.