U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) this week addressed the current national security challenges facing the United States and the importance of making sure our military is well-equipped to meet those challenges. Thune also previewed an upcoming hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, of which he is chairman, that will examine the steps social media platforms are taking to combat the spread of extremist propaganda over the internet.
Thune’s remarks (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, the beginning of a new session of Congress provides a good moment to look back at the previous year and take stock of the challenges ahead.
“And today I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about the national security challenges facing our country, and the importance of equipping our military to meet them.
“Mr. President, by the end of the Obama administration, our military was facing a serious readiness shortfall.
“The Obama administration’s failure to prioritize defense had left our armed forces with manpower deficits and delayed the acquisition of 21st century weapons and equipment.
“And military effectiveness had been compromised by a culture of micromanagement in the Obama administration that seriously hampered the ability of troops and commanders to respond to conditions on the ground in a timely fashion.
“But within days of his inauguration, President Trump made it clear that all this was going to change.
“Just a week after his inauguration, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum on rebuilding our military.
“He directed a review of our military’s readiness, and he set out an action plan to address manpower shortfalls, maintenance backlogs, acquisition costs and delays, and other drains on our military capabilities.
“President Trump also acted to free up military commanders to make decisions and respond to conditions on the ground.
“The fruits of his commitment to rebuilding our military and trusting our military leaders are already evident, most notably in the significant gains made against ISIS in 2017.
“In terms of territory held, ISIS has been routed.
“In the first 11 months of the Trump administration, over 15,000 square miles were liberated from ISIS control, exceeding the total area freed in the preceding two and a half years.
“ISIS has lost over 98 percent of the territory it once held, and it hasn’t gained any back.
“Just a month ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi declared his country “fully liberated” from ISIS.
“In Syria, ISIS has lost control of its strongholds and now only remains in small pockets of the country.
“All told, in the last year more than 5.3 million people have been freed from the brutal grip of ISIS, more than double the previous gains.
“Families who have spent years fearing for their lives are seeing a chance for stability, peace, and order.
“If this year has shown us anything, Mr. President, it’s that we can trust our military to do its job and deliver results.
“President Trump delegated tactical authority and permitted our military to take action when action was needed.
“And military leaders credit this tactical authority for the significant gains made on the ground.
“Mr. President, the swift rise of ISIS was enabled in part by the Obama administration’s shortsighted desire to withdraw from the fight against terrorism in the Middle East.
“The withdrawal of U.S. troops – on a timeline the Obama administration announced to our enemies – left a power vacuum in the region, and ISIS stepped in to fill the void.
“This is a mistake we cannot repeat.
“And while we’ve made tremendous strides against ISIS in the last year, we cannot simply take these wins and let our guard down.
“We know that ISIS and other dark actors can operate in the shadows of the internet and social media, using their extensive networks to recruit and influence other would-be attackers in the U.S. and around the world.
“As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which shares jurisdiction over some of these matters, I am committed to looking at what steps we can take to thwart terrorist recruitment and planning efforts and to keep Americans safe.
“Next week I am holding a Commerce Committee hearing on what social media companies can do in this fight.
“Mr. President, while we focus on combating terrorism, we cannot forget the conventional threats faced by our nation and our allies.
“I mentioned gains against ISIS in Syria, but there remains the alarming challenge of growing Iranian influence there.
“Syria provides a convenient land bridge to connect Iran with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is well on its way to being a proxy Iranian army.
“And, of course, we continue to see the deadly consequences of Iran’s continued smuggling of arms to Houthi rebels.
“Iran is a serious threat to stability in the Middle East and to our allies there, and we need to keep that in mind as we consider the failed Iran nuclear deal and the ongoing protests in Iran.
“Mr. President, we also have to stay focused on the threat posed by North Korea.
“South and North Korea re-established communications and just met to discuss the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“They announced that in addition to North Korea sending a delegation to the winter games, the two countries have agreed to hold military talks, but North Korea said it will not discuss its nuclear program at this time.
“Mr. President, I think North Korea’s nuclear program has to be addressed as a condition of any lasting peace, and the U.S. should lead its allies in making that clear.
“While the talks are a notable development after two years of no communication between the two countries, we obviously need to be wary of North Korea’s motives.
“We will have to see what actions follow and if the talks lead to any substantive steps by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.
“President Trump and Ambassador Haley have made it clear that North Korea must abandon its dangerous ambitions, and increased sanctions are providing additional pressure.
“We should make no concessions without fundamental progress.
“Of course, this will require cooperation from China to help exert pressure on North Korea and uphold U.N. resolutions.
“China has sought to tip the regional balance in its favor by objecting to the installation of missile defense platforms that would defend the U.S. and our allies against North Korean missiles.
“Meanwhile, it’s been simultaneously expanding its own military, continuing to develop islands in international waters, and exercising economic coercion.
“President Trump’s National Security Strategy correctly acknowledges both China and Russia as challengers to American influence, interests, security, and prosperity.
“I have spoken on the Senate floor more than once to denounce Russia’s continued annexation of Crimea, its subversion of Ukrainian sovereignty, and its efforts to undermine NATO.
“Not to mention its continued denial of attempting to meddle with our election.
“Mr. President, both the conventional challenges our nation continues to face and the persistent threat of radical terrorism underscore the perennial need to ensure that our military is the best-prepared, best-equipped fighting force in the world.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if we don’t get our national defense right, the rest of what we do here is just conversation.
“Yes, investing in our national security and restoring our military, especially after years of neglect, will come at a cost.
“But as Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley has said, ‘The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war, and the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting one and losing one.’
“Mr. President, in the next few weeks, the Senate will have a chance to vote to increase funding for our troops and take real steps to restore our military readiness.
“I hope my colleagues across the aisle will work with us.
“If there’s any issue that should be bipartisan, it is this one.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the security of our nation –our ability to live as a free people – depends upon the strength of our military.
“It’s time to make sure our military men and women have the resources they need to defend our nation.”