After close to eight years as a top staffer on the House Armed Services Committee and after serving as a leading defense adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, Roger Zakheim left Capitol Hill for the D.C. law firm Covington & Burling. In his new role, he will help the firm’s clients navigate relations with national security organizations.
Zakheim sat down with the Washington Examiner to talk about the stalled defense authorization bill, his time on the Romney campaign, “entering the family business” of defense policy, and what’s next for the Authorization for Use of Military Force.
This interview has been condensed for length.
On the stalling of the National Defense Authorization Act: Unfortunately, this is business as usual. We’ve seen a great departure from regular order for several years now. There are a lot of pessimists who are out there saying, the streak [of defense bills being approved] will come to an end [after] 51 consecutive years.
It’s clearly the difficulties in the Senate, for the most part, to get the bill off the floor. The Senate has just had a lot of problems, because of the partisan rancor and the process involved.
The impact changes in the Senate filibuster rule will have on the defense bill: Subsequent to that vote on the nuclear option, I think it became untenable to have a [successful] NDAA vote this week. But the people I speak with expect that there will be an NDAA this year. You will get a defense authorization bill.
On Romney’s pledge to hike Pentagon spending up to 4 percent of GDP becoming a centerpiece of his defense policy: It was a clear contrast between Gov. Romney and the direction that the Obama administration was going. The top-line consideration for the defense budget was definitely preeminent. That came from … what we thought, and the governor thought, the military’s mission should be, and what would be required to support and fund that mission.
Responding to criticisms that the 4 percent benchmark wasn’t necessarily tied to national security: It’s kind of a bumper sticker, and really what [defense policy] requires is more developed explanation. But this wasn’t something that the Romney campaign invented. Historically, 4 percent of GDP is pretty much average.
It can’t stand on its own. You need strong, national security policy rationale to justify that. In my judgment, we had that. It was a trajectory issue. Gov. Romney was outspoken against sequestration … and that’s where you got into the higher spending levels.
On how he followed his father, Dov Zakheim, a prominent defense policy aide, by joining the House Armed Services Committee in 2005: Two weeks before taking the bar exam … I got the nod to come work with Chairman Duncan Hunter, on the Armed Services Committee. It was great. There’s no better place for a young person who wants to work on national security policy than going to the Hill.
On what’s next for the Authorization for Use of Military Force: To me it’s quite possible that you will see an interpretation where the AUMF does not have legs to stand on if we’re no longer in Afghanistan, and I think that’s a debate you’ll see in the Congress. As long as there is a credible national security threat by al Qaeda and their franchises … our national security organizations need a framework for addressing these threats.