Trump NATO pick was US military’s ally on Capitol Hill
The new US ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is a former Texas senator with long experience in military affairs.
Never mind keeping the peace. America’s new ambassador to NATO once had to pretend to keep the peas.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former United States senator from Texas who is Donald Trump’s new envoy to the military alliance, once delivered two tons of peas to American soldiers in Bosnia. Or perhaps more accurately, the peas delivered her.
Hutchison, 74, a Republican with long experience in military affairs and defense spending, described the episode during her farewell speech to the Senate in December 2012.
“Some of the most powerful moments that will stay with me forever were spent with members of our military,” Hutchison told her soon-to-be ex-colleagues. “Visiting them where they are in harm’s way across the world is one of the most moving of all experiences. I will never forget the first time in the early ’90s flying into Sarajevo in an undercover C-130 that was disguised as a Red Cross delivery of peas — 2,000 pounds of peas, which we actually had on the C-130.”
Hutchison, who is expected to take up her post at NATO headquarters in Brussels later this month, visited U.S. troops all over the world, including soldiers on active duty in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. And in nearly 20 years as a senator, she served on virtually every committee tied to the military, including the armed services committee and the veterans affairs committee. She also served as chair of the board of visitors of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Her respect for the alliance and for troops, as well as her broad knowledge of military affairs, is likely to be a source of comfort for NATO allies still unsettled by Trump’s initial criticism of the alliance and wavering on its collective defense clause. At the same time, her appointment may serve as a loud trumpet blast, as allies realize that the woman now responsible for pushing them to raise defense expenditure is a tenacious Texan and battle-hardened veteran of some of Washington’s most bitter spending fights.
“I think she’s perfect,” said retired General Wesley Clark, a former supreme allied commander at NATO and Democratic candidate for president in 2004.
Clark, who accompanied Hutchison on one of her trips to the Balkans, said she held traditional Republican views on military policy and would undoubtedly press allies to do their part.
“Like every senator — and everyone especially from that party — they have wanted to make sure that defense resources were wisely spent and that our European allies were doing their fair share in carrying the burden,” Clark told POLITICO in a telephone interview.
“She is very smart, hard-working,” he added. “She has got a lot of charisma. She can be very forceful and strong.”
In the Senate, Hutchison was known as a legislator who could reach across the aisle, and she became particularly close to the other female senators, most of whom were Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein of California. In 2003, Hutchison and Feinstein created a commission to review overseas U.S. military bases and evaluate a Pentagon plan to make sweeping changes to military installations and forces.
The commission’s final report in 2005 expressed skepticism about the Pentagon’s plan to sharply reduce the number of U.S. military personnel in Europe and stressed the importance of NATO while also noting the potential weakness of the EU.
“The rejection of the draft European Union Constitution by French and Dutch voters in June highlighted the continued political weakness of the Union and thus the importance of NATO to our relationships with Europe,” the commission wrote. “European stability and the U.S.-Europe alliance have been an essential part of world order and our own security for more than 60 years following centuries of political turmoil and wars, the last two of which embroiled the United States.”
Large-scale cuts were made anyway, but in recent years the U.S. has started to increase its military presence in response to Russia’s military assertiveness in Ukraine, including the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. That has included a program called the European Reassurance Initiative, which has allocated billions in new financing for U.S. military operations on the Continent.
Hutchison, at her confirmation hearing, said she shared senators’ concerns about Russian aggression, and backed the alliance’s position that Moscow must implement the peace accord known as Minsk 2 that was brokered by France and Germany in February 2015.
“As NATO has said, there’s not going to be business as usual with Russia, as long as they violate the agreement they made in Minsk,” Hutchison said.
Everybody loves Kay
While a number of confirmation hearings for Trump nominees have been contentious as Democrats challenged the credentials of the president’s picks, the session with Hutchison was nothing short of a love-in.
Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate, was among those to cheer Hutchison’s selection, and noted that his oldest son had been deployed as part of the European Reassurance Initiative.
“Frankly, I was very, very worried, in the early days of this administration, to hear the president basically suggest that Russia wasn’t doing anything wrong, but also to say that NATO was obsolete, when the entire 1,200 members of my son’s battalion were deployed there, in harm’s way, doing work that I thought was important,” Kaine said.
“Your nomination sends a signal that the NATO relationship is an important one,” Kaine continued. “I don’t think the administration would’ve asked somebody of your qualification if they didn’t mean to send the signal that, whatever the earlier statements or thoughts about NATO, there’s now a commitment.”
At one point, Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, who was presiding over the hearing, made clear there was no doubt Hutchison would be confirmed and that she and her teenage son, Houston, and daughter, Bailey, would soon be in Brussels.
“We do hope to get you to NATO by the time school enrollment starts,” Corker said.
In her remarks at the hearing, Hutchison stressed her commitment to the military and the importance of the alliance, and her own support for the collective defense clause known as Article 5.
“I look forward to being an effective partner for our policies; for our military; for our allies, who are also making sacrifices for our mutual defense,” she said.
Recounting the history of NATO’s founding, she said: “It was determined that an alliance between Europe and North America sends a message of solidarity that would deter aggression and help avoid a third world war.”
But she said the alliance had evolved to become a bulwark against unconventional enemies as well.
“Does NATO exist to protect allies against any threat of aggression? Yes, that was NATO’s original mission. It remains relevant today,” Hutchison said. “But NATO has also evolved into much more, because today’s security environment now encompasses a much broader array of challenges, including asymmetric warfare, terrorism by ISIS, al-Qaeda and other extremist elements.”
Hutchison also nodded at Trump’s push for increased military spending by allies.
“Does every country in the alliance meet its agreed commitment?” she asked. “No. Improvements are in order.”
“President Trump has called for a stronger effort from allies,” she added, “Allies need to meet this commitment.”
Time to pay up
David Davis, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. army who served as Hutchison’s chief of staff in the Senate, said her views on NATO were long-held.
“There was not a conflict in which NATO forces or NATO countries were involved in during the entire time that she was in Congress that she didn’t go visit and lead congressional delegations,” said Davis, who is now chief of staff to Representative Kevin Brady of Texas.
“Long before Trump, she was that person who said our allies have to pay their fair share,” Davis said. “One of the things that I think was always her focus, was NATO has to be a military alliance. It’s not a social club, not a political club. As countries come into NATO, they have to contribute, and they have to contribute in a military way.”
Lawrence Di Rita, a naval academy graduate who preceded Davis as Hutchison’s chief of staff and went on to become a top adviser to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said Hutchison’s interest in military affairs stemmed from the large number of bases and personnel in Texas — where her family’s roots run deep. Hutchison’s great-great grandfather signed the Texas declaration of independence from Mexico in 1836.
Di Rita said that in the Trump administration Hutchsion would fit in well with Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, seasoned commanders who are well-regarded at NATO.
“These are realists, problem-solving people; people with a world view,” Di Rita said.
Associates said Hutchison rarely falls short of her goals. One notable exception was a failed bid for governor of Texas in 2010 when she challenged Rick Perry, who is now also serving in the Trump administration, as energy secretary. Perry painted her as insufficiently conservative and criticized her for being pro-choice on abortion, though she supported the right of states to impose restrictions on the procedure, which is legal in the U.S.
After that failed gubernatorial campaign, Hutchison remained in the Senate until the end of her term in 2012. While some U.S. lawmakers have struggled to make the shift to diplomacy, Hutchison’s experience in the Senate may come in handy: NATO’s main decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, typically operates on the basis of unanimous consent like the Senate.
Since her retirement from Congress, she has worked at a Texas law firm, Bracewell, based in Dallas. In her farewell speech, along with retelling the story of the peas mission to Bosnia, Hutchison reflected on her view of military service.
“I have always been one that has such great respect and gratitude for our men and women in uniform,” she said. “They put their lives on the line and pledge to give their all for our freedom. The power to wage war is an enormous one and the weight of its responsibility should rest heavy on our shoulders.”