An Interview with Joe Sestak
Sestak is running for a seat in the U.S. House from Pennsylvania's
7th congressional district, which includes most of Delaware county,
southwestern Montgomery county and eastern Chester county.
In January of this year, he retired from the U.S. Navy where
he served for 31 ones after reaching the rank of Vice Admiral. He
served six sea tours with units of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets
and served in the Office of the President of the United States as
the Director for Defense Policy on the National Security Council
staff at the White House. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Economy and
Government from Harvard University. The following are excerpts from
an interview with Joe Sestak that took place on June 21, 2006.
• PJV: You
commanded a carrier battle group comprising dozens of ships and
thousands of sailors and aviators, not to mention considerable
firepower. Assuming you win in November, how do you make the
transition from having that kind of authority to being a rookie in a
deliberative body with 434 other members
I learned two
principle things in the Navy that bear directly on your question.
The first is that when you take care of your fighting force by
giving them the education, training, healthcare and other support
they need, they'll take care of the mission. The second thing I
learned is value of teamwork, of having people with different
opinions come together as a team for a common purpose. So it's a
natural transition. I'm running to represent the people of my
district, whose hopes and dreams are no different from the people I
served with in the Navy. They want a better life for their children
and they want to be able to retire one day and enjoy the benefits of
a healthy and secure society. To achieve that, we've got to be
able to work together, to reach across party differences to confront
the serious challenges we face. It's not about left or right.
It's about moving forward.
• PJV: You were
the first director of the Navy Operations Group, also known as Deep
Blue. What was the purpose of that group?
I was appointed to that role the day after 9/11.
The CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) asked me to bring together a
group of officers and enlisted men to explore how the Navy had to
change its programs and processes --- from war planning to budgeting
to logistics to respond to the global war on terror.
• PJV: So how do
you respond to CNO Adm. Vern Clark's testimony before congress
last year that shipbuilding costs "have (so) spiraled out of
control that we can not build the Navy that we believe that we
need in the 21st century."
Admiral Clark was speaking directly to the rising
cost of shipbuilding and the need to come together in a partnership
with the Navy, shipbuilders and congress. In other words, it's not
a matter of needing more money, but of using money more efficiently.
For example, there is technology that we could invest in that would
help make shipbuilders more efficient. The question is whether
congress is prepared to provide shipyards with incentives to adopt
that technology. We also need to invest in the kind of networking
capabilities that the Navy will need to face new threats, like the
ability to create better communications networks between ships at
sea and satellites overhead so that they can share information and
respond to threats faster. We need to shift focus away from
platforms, ships, to networked sensors, and that plays to our
strength in both aerospace and information technologies. For
example, we're developing new undersea sensor technologies that
can help us track enemy submarines at a far lower cost than us
building new multi-billion dollar submarines. It's
capability-based war fighting, not platform-based war fighting.
• PJV: What do
make of the recent claim made by your opponent, Rep. Curt Weldon,
that the jury is still out? on Iraq's possession of weapons
of mass destruction?
Curt Weldon has a hard time admitting when he's
made a mistake. The Iraq Survey Group, the intelligence committees
of the House and Senate and a British study have concluded that
there are no weapons of mass destruction, yet he continues to pursue
his mistake, his mistake in believing this war was necessary and
that there were WMDs. Only a few weeks ago, he said that Ali,
his source who said that Osama bin Laden was dead, a claim that
has been discredited told him that the WMDs were buried under
riverbeds. Then Weldon said he knows of four sites where WMDs are
being hidden. If this was credible information, I wonder why he
decided to announce it to the general public instead of taking it
directly to our intelligence people. The bottom line is he supported
a war that has become a tragic misadventure and he cannot admit that
there are no weapons of mass destruction, despite evidence to the
• PJV: In the
issues section of your website, you state that the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the lack of democratic institutions
in the Middle East represent a clear and present danger? in the
region. Why, from a U.S. national security perspective, does the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict represent such a danger?
The absence of U.S.
leadership since the Bush administration took over in working
strongly with the Israelis and Palestinians to pursue the Roadmap
has permitted the situation to deteriorate to the point where Hamas,
a terrorist organization, is the elected government of the
Palestians. We should have worked strongly, from the day the Bush
administration took office, to build on the efforts President
Clinton made to bring the parties together. Now the current
administration is trying, belatedly, to address the situation. But
experience has shown that only way we can ensure that Israel's
right to be a free and Jewish state is recognized by her neighbors
is for us to be engaged. Absent that engagement, the conflict will
remain clear and present danger, with the ever present possibility
of violence from the conflict spilling over to other countries.
• PJV: What about
the lack of democratic institutions in the region? If that too
represents a clear and present danger, what can the U.S. do about
We have worked successfully for decades in pursing
the growth of democracy around the world. Look at South America,
where we've helped countries move from dictatorships to democratic
governments, especially in the 1980s and 90s. Look at Eastern
Europe, where we stood firm after the fall of the Soviet Union and
helped those countries become more democratic. I don't believe you
can impose democracy through war on those who do not want it. But I
do believe we can use the power of our ideals to show both the
leaders and the peoples of the region to see the benefits of
representative government, and demonstrate how, in long term, the
movement to democracy leads to prosperity. If they don't
make that move, the feeling of disenfranchisement will continue to
grow and with it the likelihood of more violence.
• PJV: What do
make of the apparent split in the Democratic party between those who
favor establishing a firm date for bringing our troops home from
Iraq and those who believe we
need to remain more open ended? about withdrawal?
I can only speak for myself, but my belief is that
ideally, both politicians and military people are dealers in hope,
in the possibilities of a better tomorrow. But to deal in hope, you
must outline a clear vision of what needs to be accomplished to
serve the citizens of our great nation. I've done that for the
citizens of my district by telling them that national security
begins at home in the health, educational and economic security of
them and their children, and by recognizing that only as a strong
nation can we truly confront the problems that face us abroad. That
being said, after three years of chasing elusive and ever-changing
goals in Iraq, I believe we must set a date to withdraw, certainly
by the end of 2007. There are other strategic interests that are not
being well-addressed due to the continued pouring of our national
treasure, in people and money, into Iraq. We spoke about the
Israeli-Palestinian issue, where we abdicated an engaged role years
ago. We have Iran, where we were absent years ago in trying to
prevent their developing nuclear weapons. We failed to ensure a
secure environment in Afghanistan and now the Taliban threat is
growing there again. Then there's the Pacific, where we face
threats from North Korea and where we have diplomatic and economic
challenges with China. To prevent wars and other acts of violence,
we need to have a new vision of the world where the U.S. engaged in
all areas of its and its allies interests and where we work together
to solve problems. The current turmoil in Iraq is a clear example of
the dangers of acting alone.
• PJV: The education reforms that you recommend include ensuring that
all children have access to a quality pre-school program and
implementing a refundable college tax credit of $3,000. What would
say to those on the right who might dismiss these ideas as
typical Democratic tax and spend? policies.
We clearly can't achieve these goals
immediately. Our first task is to regain sound fiscal and budget
practices with a government that pays its own way instead of relying
on unsustainable budget deficits. But as we gain savings through
fiscal responsibilities, such as the budget caps and pay as you go
rules that worked in the Clinton administration, we'll have the
ability to invest in new initiatives. And the need is clearly there,
in education for example. Look at the front page of today's
Inquirer, which reports that 30% of Americans don't graduate
from high school. Is that how America is going to deal with
challenges that face us in the future? That's what so dismayed me
about Curt Weldon. Four out of five times he voted with the
president to lay an unconstrained debt on the backs of our children,
while voting against funding for health insurance and Pell grants.
His support of administration's budgets and inequitable tax
policies have hurt the people of my district and deprived our
country of the revenues we need to face urgent challenges.
• PJV: You've
said that "regardless of your religious beliefs" you support the
Roe v. Wade decision granting women the right to abortion.
Could you elaborate?
I believe in the separation of church and state.
For example, I disagree with Curt Weldon, who voted for a defense
bill back on May 11 that would allow chaplains to pray in the name
of Jesus at public military ceremonies. I believe chaplains should
have the freedom to invoke God at these occasions, but should do so
in a non-sectarian way. Do I believe that religion is an important
value? Absolutely. I learned the value of belief in God as grew up
in my family, but I also learned that I cannot impose my religious
beliefs on others.
- July 2005: Chuck Pennacchio
candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
- August 2005: Lois Murphy who is
running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
- September 2005: Pennsylvania State Representative Daylin
- October 2005: Bob Casey
candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
- November 2005: Gov. Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee
- December 2005: Rep. Jim Gerlach
who is running for reelection in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
- January 2006: Rep. Chaka Fattah
from Pennsylvania's 2nd district
- February 2006: Matthew Brooks,
Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition
- March 2006: Alan Sandals,
candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate
- April 2006: Ira Forman,
Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Committee
- May 2006: Charles Smolover,
Vice-President of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice
- June 2006: Rep. Steve Israel,
from New York's 2nd district.