U.S. Representative Tom Garrett was elected last November from the Fifth Congressional District of Virginia, and the freshman was assigned seats on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and its subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.
Garrett, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Balkans in the 1990s, has a law degree and was a member of the Virginia state senate before he was elected to succeed Congressman Robert Hurt, who retired from the House of Representatives after three terms. Virginia’s Fifth District is territorially large – it is bigger in area than the states of New Jersey and Vermont – and was previously represented by Tom Perriello, who later became the Department of State’s Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and by Virgil Goode, who in 2012 was the Constitution Party’s presidential candidate. Garrett and Hurt are Republicans; Perriello is a Democrat; and Goode was consecutively a Democrat, independent, and Republican during his tenure in Congress.
Congressman Garrett participated in a town hall meeting at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia on March 31, fielding questions in a raucous two-hour session that included vocal protesters, dialogue with constituents, and equal measures of cheers and jeers. Afterwards, Garrett sat down for an exclusive interview with Sub-Saharan Monitor about current issues in East Africa, including Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan.
Soon after he took office, Garrett had intervened on behalf of political prisoners being held by the Sudanese government. He helped free Czech missionary Petr Jasek, who had been convicted of “espionage,” and two Sudanese nationals who were being held on similar charges. He is arranging for the release of the Sudanese and paving the way for their families to come to the United States as refugees under the J-2 visa program.
In his interview with Sub-Saharan Monitor, Garrett explained the situation.
“There were originally four individuals arrested,” he said, “one a Czech national, three from the Republic of Sudan, for aiding ostensibly rebel groups in the south of Sudan (not South Sudan). One was acquitted and the Czech [missionary] was released after about 15 months total captivity in a Sudanese prison. The two Sudanese are still being held.”
Having learned about the situation from constituents, he said, he intervened on behalf of the Czech prisoner and was “surprised, and sort of humbled, to learn that we were the first Member of Congress, according to Sudanese ambassador, to visit the Embassy in a decade.”
The difference between his efforts and those of others, he explained, “was that we got in a car and went over there and sat down and started a discourse.” He met with the Ambassador more than once and they exchanged texts and emails and correspondence. “Other people,” he said, “write letters and say, ‘There, I tried to help.’”
Garrett said his office is “still hard at work to ensure that the two remaining Sudanese are released and have offered essentially to pursue refugee visa status for themselves and their immediate families.”
He added, however, that “depending on what region of the world you’re in, the definition of ‘immediate family’ shifts but we hammered it out to mean the individuals, spouse, parents, and children. What we’re trying to do is ensure that these folks can come live freely in the United States.”
He admits that the Sudanese prisoners were “probably” guilty of the charges they faced “by the letter of the [Sudanese] law, but the definition of aiding these rebels was simply giving money and food and medicine to Christians in an oppressive region of the nation of the Sudan near the Nuba mountains.”
Garrett indicated that he was “lucky” to have been appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which gave him the leverage to intervene successfully on behalf of these prisoners in Sudan. It humanized his work in Congress, he explained.
“I like to tell people: you can like a bill, you can vote for a bill, you can advocate a bill, but you can’t hug a bill, you can’t shake a bill’s hand, and so our opportunity to get these people their freedom, that’s heady stuff. It’s pretty humbling,” he said.
Rules of engagement in Somalia
The conversation shifted to Somalia, where, according to the New York Times, the Trump administration “has relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the American military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia, laying the groundwork for an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the Horn of Africa.”
Garrett spoke in general terms about the change, since he had not read the details of the new policy.
“The rules of engagement should never be so tight as to potentially endanger U.S. service members,” he said. “I can think of instances where, indeed, they were so restrictive as to endanger men and women who we’d put in country. If the rules need to be that tight, then the men and women shouldn’t be in country.”
Turning again to Sudan as an illustration, he said that he has been working with that country with regard to “the 1998 bombing of what turned out not to be a chemical weapons facility.” That incident, he asserted, was “a mistake in the deployment of very destructive weapons systems [that] can influence policy for decades. In that arena, President Bashir’s been a bad actor since the late 1980s,” but, he added, “I can assure you that the Sudanese don’t feel as if we’ve been the best partner in some aspects of the geopolitical world, as well, so we need to make good decisions” in how military assets are used.
“The beginning of this is not engaging,” he said, “and certainly not engaging in activities designed to bring about regime change until we’ve contemplated what will fill the vacuum created when the current, sometimes bad, actor is removed. The paradigm is obviously Libya although you can make arguments” for Iraq and Syria, “although Bashir is still there.” The point, he emphasized, is that “you need to know what’s going to fill that vacuum — if you’re going to create that vacuum — and you need to know [the new alternative is] better or you shouldn’t be there.”
The second thing, he said, is that “you never arm, aid, or encourage anybody who will turn their weapons or their resources on you or your allies as soon as they’re done with their current quest. Even our proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is a pretty good example of that.”
In the 1980s (“way, way back when”) he explained, “we wanted to see a stop to the Soviet spread across the region, [while] the Soviets obviously were angling their way inch by inch to warm water, [to] Indian Ocean access.” It turned out, however, that the United States “funded and fostered” the Taliban, which had protected Osama Bin Laden “and allowed for the training of people who took 3,000 American lives” in the 9/11 attacks.
“Hindsight being 20/20,” Garrett said, “let’s not do that again.”
Regional support in East Africa
With regard to the front line states in Somalia – Kenya, Ethiopia, and the other participating forces in AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) – Garrett favors U.S. support accompanied by a carrot-and-stick approach.
“The real challenge is that there’s a lot going [on]” in the region, he said, “because Ethiopia is a wonderful actor as it relates to international/UN missions, etc., but there’s also some bad stuff going on in Ethiopia” domestically.
“On the other hand,” he said, Kenya “is a great ally and we’re blessed to have them in the region. Egypt under Sisi has been helpful (although not so much in Somalia), more as a stabilizing factor by virtue of their size and military capability.”
The United States, he added, should “reward the good guys and don’t reward – notice that I didn’t say punish – the bad guys. Work more closely with Kenya. Foster tighter relationships with Kenya. Tell the Ethiopians we appreciate our help, and these are the changes we’d like to see in order to move into that category where, I think, Kenya can be.”
Commenting on other parts of the East African region, Garrett said that “even without crossing the Rubicon into this regime change thing that I talked about, [which] I think we’ve done very poorly, you need to recognize the incredible crisis that is Darfur, South Sudan, Somalia, and some of the surrounding regions, Nuba Mountains, the Republic of Sudan, and you can’t just turn a blind eye.”
Why not? He explained:
“The one common trait among displaced people is they don’t want to be displaced. We’ve watched the Germans and [other] Europeans in pain over how to deal with the massive influx of people who are culturally different than they are. I’m not saying anything inappropriate, it’s just true. So that creates challenges and turmoil.”
“If you create circumstances where people can be happy and have opportunities at home, you don’t have that problem, so stability should be the goal. Peace should be the goal. I think truly — and I would love to be a partisan and blame the Obama administration but it goes back well beyond that — that sometimes we haven’t thought out the long-term ramifications of U.S. actions. We need to do a better job of that.”
Famine in South Sudan
The Virginia congressman also commented on the United Nations’ declaration of a state of famine in South Sudan, and how President Salva Kiir responded by raising the price of a license for humanitarian aid workers from $100 to $10,000.
The Africa subcommittee, he said, “literally had hearings on that and the greater famine in East Africa writ large this week. You’re right back to that carrot-and-stick approach. I will tell you that that sort of behavior transcends East Africa.”
He pointed out that the same problem had arisen with U.S.-funded contractors in Afghanistan, whose task is to “implement policies to sustain the Afghan government.”
Garrett said that “right now it’s a crapshoot in South Sudan anyway, there’s a non-stop war, right? If you go after the president in this case, exclusively, is what you get worse? So you foster good behavior by denying – instead of attacking, instead of using the stick – denying the carrot and then you use the carrot” so you do not have to “use the stick.” The approach, he said, is “about showing good faith and good will.”
Soft power, hard power, foreign aid
At the same time, he said, Members of Congress have to be “good stewards of tax dollars and what’s an appropriate expenditure but I would advocate on behalf of foreign aid, of the carrot, the soft power vs. exclusively hard power,” although he agrees with President Trump’s proposals to beef up the military.
He cautioned, however, that “money’s not a panacea, either.”
Reminded that Secretary of Defense James Mattis had said, before taking that office, that “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition… The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.” Garrett replied, with emphasis, “Yeah, oh yeah, and I hope he said that to the administration.”
He explained that it is possible to cut a government program through “streamlining and making it more efficient” but, regarding cuts to foreign aid, “where are we cutting? There’s foreign aid that could be cut.” He pointed out a lesser-known fact that the United States has “actually given military aid, to the tune of about $20 million, to Russia in the last 15 years. That makes no sense whatsoever. Now, relative to nations like Israel or Kenya, it’s small, but why is it any?”
He concluded by saying that “there are areas where we can cut, where we can be more efficient, but you can’t shut down the soft-power option in favor of an exclusive hard-power option.”
To do so, he said, would be “inefficient and, I think, in the end it costs more.”