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An Interview with Joe Sestak
Joe Sestak 

Joe 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 contrary.

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 it?

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 Philadelphia 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.

 Interview by Charles Smolover

Previous Interviews

  • 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 Leach.
  • 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.