Since taking the majority in January, U.S. House Democrats have primarily concentrated on their domestic agenda, passing an array of health care, environmental and voting rights bills.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) has shared that focus and gave an emotional floor speech about her mother’s cancer fight during passage of a bill shielding people with pre-existing conditions.
Slotkin, who came to Congress with years of national security and intelligence experience, also has kept an eye on the international stage as a member of the U.S. Armed Services Committee. Her past positions include Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency and acting assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs.
In an interview last month on Mackinac Island, she spoke with the Advance about new cyber-security threats, as well as a possible military conflict with Iran that some in the President Trump administration are advocating.
“Even if we take the president at some of his comments that he doesn’t want to get into a long war with Iran, given the heightened tensions and the escalation of both rhetoric and forces in the region, you risk inadvertent conflict — a mistaken conflict that suddenly spirals out of control,” Slotkin said.
This interview predated the latest development in which Trump blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Slotkin told the Associated Press on Saturday that providing naval escorts through the Strait of Hormuz is not a “sustainable option because of the amount of traffic.” She said she “wouldn’t be opposed to the U.S. having a more visible presence in the region,” but expressed, as she did to the Advance, that she’s concerned that the Trump administration “does not have a clear strategy on Iran.”
The following are excerpts from the congresswoman’s interview with the Advance:
Michigan Advance: What would you say is the biggest national security threat to the United States right now?
Slotkin: I think the biggest national security threat is that the nature of threats and warfare are fundamentally changing to new arenas. So it’s unlikely that we’re going to have a tank war with a peer competitor, but cyber warfare, warfare in space, artificial intelligence amplifying cyber tools … to me, that’s a whole new universe of threats and we need to do everything we can to prepare ourselves because they are upon us.
In addition to the nature of the threats changing, the nature of the targets, right now we have … Baltimore city is completely paralyzed because of a ransomware attack on a hole in their system and they can’t do regular business in Baltimore.
That is not targeting U.S. soldiers. That is not targeting a U.S. base or a U.S. outpost. That is targeting normal American citizens who are just trying to get their bills paid, their deed transferred, whatever. So what’s the right proportional response when there’s been an attack like that? If we know, for instance, that it might be coming from North Korea or from China, how should the United States respond to an attack like that?
Clearly, we don’t yet have a new doctrine on how to deal with these 21st century threats and we need it. That’s part of my work on the [U.S.] Armed Services Committee is pushing the Pentagon to think in new and different ways. …
Michigan Advance: What do you think the consequences would be of the United States getting into a military conflict with Iran?
Slotkin: Oh, I think it would be a long, entrenched and expensive fight in both blood and treasure. What concerns me right now is that it is totally unclear what our strategy is. We’ve got [U.S.] Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo saying, ‘I have a 12-point plan and the Iranians have to answer my 12 points.’ You have [National Security Advisor] John Bolton, who has literally written about regime change in Iran his entire adult life.
Then you have the president, who on various days will say, ‘I don’t want to get into a conflict. I only care about the nuclear issue,’ but then will tweet that he wants to essentially wipe them off the map. So if you and I don’t understand what the strategy is, vis-à-vis Iran, what do the Iranians think?
Even if we take the president at some of his comments that he doesn’t want to get into a long war with Iran, given the heightened tensions and the escalation of both rhetoric and forces in the region, you risk inadvertent conflict — a mistaken conflict that suddenly spirals out of control.
So in 2016, a U.S. Navy ship lost power and strayed close to some Iranian Navy vessels and the Iranians picked them up. Because we had clear diplomatic channels at multiple levels, because we were very clear in our messaging that these sailors were not intending to stray into waters; this was a malfunction. We were able to get those sailors back in 24 hours unharmed. They were treated well.
If the same incident happened today, what would happen? We have cut off our channels of communication with the Iranians. We don’t have those links. The tensions are very high. Would they believe us if we said that it was a mistake?
Then, suddenly, you’re in a spiral where the Iranians start sending more forces and we send more forces in defense. We’ve lost the ability to tell what is offense; what is defense, because we’re in this tense cycle of action and reaction.
So that’s a very dangerous thing. Anyone who has been involved in national security for even a short time will tell you that the risk of inadvertent mistaken conflict is just as high as intentional conflict.