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Talent takes on new roles on defense, U.S.-China policy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 5, 2013 - WASHINGTON – If Mitt Romney would have been elected president, there’s a good chance that the former Midwestern GOP senator testifying at the Senate Armed Services committee last week would have been Jim Talent rather than Chuck Hagel.

Talent, a former U.S. senator and House member from Chesterfield, was a senior adviser on defense and security issues to Romney and was on nearly every pundit’s short list of potential cabinet nominees, with several pegging him for a future secretary of Defense.

As it turned out, President Barack Obama won re-election and nominated Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, to the Pentagon post. On Thursday, Hagel endured nine hours of questioning – with most of the barbs coming from Republicans on the panel who were upset with his previous quotes or votes about Iran, Israel and other issues.

Talent, who served with Hagel in the Senate, said in an interview that he respects the Defense nominee as “a smart guy and a patriot.” But he shares the concerns of many Republican senators – including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who has announced his opposition – about Hagel’s views related to Iran.

Observing that Hagel “performed poorly at his confirmation hearing,” Talent said senators need to make sure that the nominee is in line with the White House position of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapon capability – rather than containing that capability after Iran acquires it.

“The president has made clear that he sees a nuclear Iran as a major threat,” Talent said in an interview. “I’d want to make sure Sen. Hagel’s views were consistent with that.”

Instead of being in the hot seat in a new presidential administration, Talent has added a couple of new assignments to his portfolio this year: He will serve on a panel that advises Congress on the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Review and is one of a dozen members of another advisory panel on U.S.-China economic and security issues.

Talent was disappointed in Romney’s loss in November and says it is clear that the former GOP presidential nominee won’t seek that post again. “After the last [campaign], he knew he might run again. But this time, obviously, he’s not going to.”

Talent said Romney “gave me a call just to thank me for what I’d done. I asked him what he was going to be doing and he said he was going to have to decompress and sort through everything -- which made sense.”

Reviewing Pentagon plans at a crucial time

At a time when the Defense Department is planning its transition away from Afghanistan, shifting more toward Asia and dealing with current and threatened cutbacks, Talent is keeping a role in security issues – but mainly from the outside, looking in.

Last week, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Ca., named Talent and former Ambassador Eric Edelman as the first two members of a National Defense panel that will assess the next Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Review.

As “two of the most respected defense experts,” McKeon said Talent and Edelman were “uniquely qualified” to help assess the Pentagon’s “significant shift in defense strategy” and to make recommendations on the best congressional responses.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Talent, who served on a similar commission a few years ago. “One of the reasons they set this up is because it’s supposed to begin with an analysis from 30,000 feet of where they need to go ... on the composition of the force and what is will look like in the future.”

Last time around, Talent said, the review panel “took them to task for what we saw as a mismatch between the likely missions that they would have to perform and the force structure – that is, the nature of the force that they were planning to perform those missions.”

Given the current plans to withdraw most U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014 and to pivot more of the military’s focus to Asia, Talent said, the new Quadrennial review “should be pretty different.” And the congressional advisory panel may be, too.

“This time, Congress wants the panel to sort of audit what was happening as the Defense Department was doing its Quadrennial Review,” Talent said. “The panel, if not involved directly in producing the QDR, is at least going to be involved in monitoring it while it is being produced.”

Talent said he was especially concerned about the potential impact of the automatic across-the-board cuts to the Defense Department under budget sequestration, scheduled to start next month unless Congress comes up with a better deficit-reduction plan.

“Sequestration is a bad thing and I hope they can avert it,” Talent told the Beacon, noting that defense spending had been cut by more than $400 billion over a decade under the 2011 budget control act. “This would be yet another round of cuts.”

Talent said he also worried about Hagel’s stance on “the readiness of the force, and the ability of the force to do its missions – given the defense cuts of the last two years and the threat of sequestration.”

Three years ago, he said, “our panel recommended that the Navy be increased in size and that all three of the services be re-capitalized, because their equipment is getting old and unreliable.”

Talent acknowledged that it was unusual for both of Missouri’s U.S. senators – Blunt and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. – to have seats on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had served on that panel before losing the 2006 election to McCaskill.

“Missouri’s involvement in defense is certainly significant enough to justify” both senators of Armed Services, he said. “I think it’s a good thing that both Sens. McCaskill and Blunt feel it’s important to be on that committee.”

Security implications of U.S.-China relations

Also last month, Talent was named as one a dozen members of a standing congressional body called the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

“It was set up at the time that Congress agreed to admit China into the international trading system,” Talent said. “The job is to monitor the relationship between the U.S. and China, both in terms of economics and security.”

The bipartisan, congressionally appointed panel will have its initial hearing for 2013 on Thursday on the implications of China's new leadership for this country and the Pacific region.

“They try to spotlight issues that are emerging, but they don’t want to hunt for headlines,” Talent said. “It’s not as if there is some problem between Japan and China and they will hold a hearing on it to get publicity.”

The panel’s members are chosen by Senate and House majority and minority leaders; Talent was selected by Senate GOP Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. While the members look at overall issues in U.S.-China relations, they each tend to focus on specific areas of expertise.

“I’ll probably focus on the economics of agriculture and issues relating to the rising danger of conflict in the Pacific, with an emphasis on Navy issues,” Talent said.

For example, there are some concerns about territorial disputes between Japan and China over some small islands in the South China Sea. “We have to monitor that carefully and try to contain that risk,” said Talent. The goal is to “try to get a peaceful resolution that leaves the whole area open to commerce and travel for everybody."

In addition, the U.S.-China panel submits an annual report to Congress on “national security implications of the bilateral trade and economic relationship” between the two countries.

The specific topics include weapons proliferation, economic transfers, energy, U.S. capital markets, regional economic and security impacts, and the implications of restrictions on speech and access to information in China.

Heritage Foundation under Jim DeMint

Talent, who lives in Chesterfield but commutes regularly to Washington, also will continue in his part-time post as a senior fellow on defense and security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington.

Mercury Public Affairs, a Washington-based firm that does public affairs and government relations for various clients.

This month, former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party favorite from South Carolina, resigned his Senate seat to take up the top job at Heritage, which is reportedly planning more political activism on conservative issues.

“He hasn’t been there that long, but I’m sure he’ll have a set of priorities he wants to accomplish,” said Talent, who served in the Senate with DeMint. “Everybody is enthusiastic about him and looking forward to his leadership.”