The Pro-Israel Arab-Speaking Marine Veteran in Congress
WASHINGTON – Although many members of Congress frequently analyze or write legislation pertaining to the Middle East, few have the hands-on experience and rigorous background of Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI). After studying Arabic at Princeton University, the Green Bay native enlisted in the US military and served seven years on active duty including multiple tours in Iraq where he used his language skills to both interpret and interrogate Iraqis. Gallagher served as a counterintelligence officer under H.R. McMaster, currently the White House National Security Advisor, for a year. After leaving the military, Gallagher worked as the lead Republican staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee covering the Middle East. Somehow at the young age of 33, he also found time to earn a PhD from Georgetown University in international relations.
Gallagher served in the Anbar province, which had been struck by some of the most horrific violence after the 2003 American invasion. However, after the surge of US military presence across Iraq, the situation calmed dramatically. “We were just walking around without our protective gear without our helmets passing out school supplies and soccer balls to kids that couldn’t even walk to that school a year before because it was too dangerous,” Gallagher told Jewish Insider. “That to me was tangible evidence for all the progress that had been made.” Yet, while Gallagher’s service ended on an optimistic point, only a few years later after the US military fully withdrew, the Islamic State expanded its control over much of Syria and Iraq including the same Anbar province where the Congressman served.
The Wisconsin lawmaker’s deep knowledge of the Arab world has not diminished his commitment to Israel. While President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for securing the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, Gallagher has urged an alternative policy. America should “Invest heavily in a bottom-up approach. We have seen how a top-down solution has failed on multiple occasions, particularly one that has been driven by the UN,” he explained. “Instead, let’s focus on how we can improve the lives of the Palestinians particularly for the next generation and over time build up the trust necessary for the parties to come to an agreement.”
Republican and Democratic Presidents have continuously over-emphasized the importance of Israeli-Palestinian peace, Gallagher contended. It’s necessary to “recognize that Iranian destabilization of the region as well as ISIS are far more important issues than Israeli-Palestinian peace. If Netanyahu and Abbas were on the White House lawn tomorrow with an agreement, we could live with — it might help — but the broader strategic picture in the Middle East would probably remain largely unchanged,” he explained.
Unlike some in his party who have recently defended the decision to go to war in Iraq, Gallagher was quite critical of the Republican administration that led the operations and made a point to list for us the various failures. “It was not only a failure of intelligence, it was a failure to plan for phase three and four of the operations. It was a failure to understand how our action in Iraq would upend the balance of power with Iran in the region. Subsequent decisions to de-Bathasize the Iraqi army was a failure of planning as well,” he emphasized.
The 33-year old fresh-faced Congressman admitted that he has a “bizarre obsession” with 1950’s and 1960’s soul and gospel music while also loving sci-fi. “I’m a huge nerd; I have no life,” he joked. Gallagher did not come from a military family, nevertheless he joined the Marines due to a “mix of wanting to scratch my intellectual interest, to serve my country (and) the physical as well as academic and leadership challenge all combined into one.”
During his campaign for office last year, Gallagher repeatedly evoked combat language. Before the November election he urged supporters to prepare for the “Democratic army getting ready to descend on the 8th district with a mission to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House again.” Gallagher referred to the US capitol as “enemy-held territory.”
Arriving on Capitol Hill in January, the Wisconsin lawmaker was surprised by the amount of time and energy members devote to fundraising. “It’s seeing how much time people spend doing things that aren’t really related to legislating or committee work. These are hard problems that take a lot of time to solve. All of the time you spend worrying about your re-election is time not spent legislating. It’s a problem,” Gallagher cautioned.
Jewish Insider: Why did you run for Congress?
Congressman Mark Gallagher: “I look back on the last 10 years of my life from I joined the Marine Corps and graduated college to when I did two deployments to Iraq and I was part of the surge: saw it work first hand so it would go from pretty much chaos to relative order and left pretty much feeling like that we had accomplished the mission. And then, about two years ago, I returned in a civilian capacity and saw the town that I deployed to in Western Iraq was under ISIS control so I felt like I needed to step up and be part of the positive effort to reorient American Foreign Policy and couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch it to continue to deteriorate. I never thought that I would run for office. I was a military, intell and policy guy so this was an unexpected new adventure for me.”
JI: Can you please discuss any powerful moments from your military service in Iraq?
MG: “On the positive side, one of my last memories was of us going to a school in a town called Rawa in al-Anbar province. This was towards the end of my second deployment and we were just walking around without our protective gear without our helmets passing out school supplies and soccer balls to kids that couldn’t even walk to that school a year before because it was too dangerous. That to me was tangible evidence for all the progress that had been made. Now, on the negative side, at the beginning of that deployment, literally our first day there, there was a group of al-Qaeda in Iraq members who crossed the border (from Syria) in Iraq army uniforms and killed 20 people in the local village, after it had been calm for a little bit. That threw our little area into chaos. We were chasing these guys and dealing with the consequences of it for most of our deployment; we had some success and some failure. It’s interesting to see what has happened to that part of Iraq. I used to be literally on the border in a town called Huseiba, you could throw a stone into Syria. That border has been completely erased and part of ISIS’ caliphate. That was unthinkable to me. 2008 when I left, because I was passing out soccer balls, there is no way this would ever happen. Interesting times.”
JI: Why did you decide to enlist in the military?
MG: “I started studying Arabic when I was at Princeton and gone abroad the summer of my sophomore year. I had been working for the Rand Cooperation and got assigned to this project studying terrorist targeting methods. And, for the first time in my life I started to be engaged intellectually with the idea: what is going on in Iraq? Why are we at war? Why are there these groups out there that want to kill us? The more I pulled the string on that intellectual interest, the more I became fascinated by it. I came back and changed my major and started studying Arabic as a junior did two years and the more I focused on the Middle East and Arabic, the more I became convinced that I wanted to use these skills in a way beyond working in a think tank and the military popped out. I didn’t come from a military family and I just started to explore all of the different kind of services and the culture and the challenge presented by the Marine Corps just grabbed me so I went to officer candidate school the summer after my junior year. Didn’t know if I could survive, survived and joined the day I graduated. It was the best decision I ever made. Mix of wanting to scratch my intellectual interest, wanting to serve my country. Wanting the physical as well as academic and leadership challenge all combined into one.”
JI: Based on your many years serving in Iraq, do you see America’s 2003 invasion as a mistake?
MG: “I think knowing what we do now, ya, it was not only a failure of intelligence it was a failure to plan for the phase three and four operations. It was a failure to understand how our action in Iraq would upend the balance of power with Iran in the region. Subsequent decisions to de-Bathasize the Iraqi army was a failure of planning as well. But, the remarkable thing to me and here I was as a 18 or 19 year old kid thinking: ‘well, we should have invaded.’ It didn’t matter. I still felt like I needed to be part of it and I needed to serve. And, even though we screwed so much up on the front end, we managed to turn it all around and the decision that resulted in the surge I think was remarkably courageous and the fact is we produced success from that initial failure and we managed to turn it around. The more damaging decision was to flush all of those gains down the drain by pulling out precipitously.”
JI: What are lessons from this 2003 invasion, which you called a “failure,” that you draw from that in our current US policy in the Middle East?
MG: “I try and apply what you call the lance corporal test to everything where decisions that look neat and tidy in an air conditioned office in Washington DC often get messy, complicated and dangerous if not deadly when it is the lance corporal on the tip of the spear who has to implement it. I think it should give us all a great deal of humility when we talk about deploying military force. That being said I think the lesson that I derive from the surge as well as the subsequent decision to pull out is when we think through the consequences and when we align all of our instruments of national power around a clear objective that is appropriately resourced: there really is no limit on what we can achieve. And, when we enlist our allies into the cause, that is when it gets really powerful. That lesson to me is equally important.”
JI: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was just in Washington meeting with President Trump. What do you think the next step should be for the US approach on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?
MG: “I was struck by something that Netanyahu said when he left his first meeting with President Trump. (I am paraphrasing). For the first time in my life, countries that viewed Israel as an enemy now view it as an ally. I think the first step is to understand the broader regional picture and understand how there is a historic level of cooperation going on between the Israelis and the Egyptians and Sunni gulf states. The problem is that is a de-facto alliance in that the thing which unites all those countries is their opposition to Iran. The first thing we need to do is get our regional strategy right and any coherent regional strategy needs to be premised on our willingness to roll back Iran’s influence. If we do that, we can get buy in from all of our allies in the fight against ISIS simultaneously. Pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian issue is also recognizing that Iranian destabilization of the region as well as ISIS are far more important issues than Israeli-Palestinian peace. If Netanyahu and Abbas were on the White House lawn tomorrow with an agreement, we could live with — it might help — but the broader strategic picture in the Middle East would probably remain largely unchanged. Syria would still be a safe haven. ISIS would still have a caliphate. Iran would still be expanding its influence at the expense of Israel and threatening its existence. Understanding that and getting out of the trap that so many presidents fall into, which is to say that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the focal point which everything else turns, which of course it does not is how this administration needs to view it. With guys like H.R. Mcmaster and Mattis, I think they get that.”
JI: But, specifically how would you like to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
MG: “Invest heavily in a bottom-up approach. We have seen how a top-down solution has failed on multiple occasions, particularly one that has been driven by the UN. Instead, let’s focus on how we can improve the lives of the Palestinians particularly for the next generation and over time build up the trust necessary for the parties to come to an agreement. But, I think it would be foolish for the US to try and force an agreement on either side when they aren’t ready.”
JI: Who are your foreign policy mentors?
MG: “My first professor on the Middle East at Princeton was a guy named Mike Doran and he provided a gateway into the region and remains a close friend and mentor and we talk all the time. He was incredible. He wrote me my first recommendation to the Marine Corps. H.R. McMaster, I worked for him for a year. He’s the reason I stayed in the military. I got back from my second deployment and he called me up and asked me to be part of this group that Petraeus put together called the Central Command assessment team. That was my first exposure to DC level policy making and strategy. He also convinced me to pursue a Phd. I was able to do it at Georgetown and that was a great experience. Mattis, obviously every Marine of my generation worships Jim Mattis.”
JI: In addition to your political views and military background, what is something about your personality or schedule that your constituents may not know?
MG: “I have a bizarre obsession with 50 and 60’s soul and gospel music. I’m a huge nerd. I have no life. I love sci-fi.”
JI: Do you feel as a Member of Congress, did the amount of fundraising surprise you?
MG: “It was a huge part of the campaign. It surprised me never running for office before and not knowing what to expect. It surprised me how much hinged on that and how much time you have to devote to it. I think it’s a huge problem if not the problem we face. It’s being here and seeing how much time people spend doing things that aren’t really related to legislating or committee work. These are hard problems that take a lot of time to solve. All of the time you spend worrying about your re-election is time not spent legislating. It’s a problem. At the end of the day, the best way I think to reduce money in politics is to reduce the influence of the federal government on our daily lives because every time you create a new agency, you create an interest group that is dedicated to its preservation who hires a lobbyist to influence Members of Congress so that is ultimately what draining the swamp is.”
JI: How would you rate President Trump from “A” to “F”?
MG: “I would have to it on different domains. On foreign policy, I had a lot of concerns about what he said in the campaign, I think he actually over-performed: both in terms of the team he surrounded himself with: Mattis, Mcmaster, Kelly. This is a group of the most talented national security staff since Eisenhower in the 1950s. His decision in Syria was the right one. In Afghanistan the decision was the right one. I would give him a high grade on foreign policy so far.”
JI: Is there anything you disagree with Trump on?
MG: “Yeah. I still think his rhetoric has consequences. I don’t think it’s helpful to signal to South Korea at the same time that we are trying to defend them against North Korea that maybe we might pull out of our trade relations with them. Some of this rhetoric has to have consequences. That needs to change. We need a broader sense of his grand strategic vision. What does he want to achieve on the world stage? Does he want to reduce our commitments or does he want to restore peace through strength?”
JI: You worked on the Walker campaign for President. You probably wouldn’t be here in Congress if he would have won. Were you glad that he lost?
MG: “Of course not. I wanted him to win. He’s shown resolve and a willingness to reform at the state level and I thought he could bring that same spirit on the national level. I was a national security nerd so I thought that I would be doing national security in the Walker administration. It’s funny how life turns out. You can’t really plan it.”