This January, Virginia will lose its elder statesman when Republican Sen. John W. Warner retires. First elected in 1978, Warner dedicated his 30 years in the Senate to the U.S. military and national security. He sits on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee and has spent half of his career as its chairman or ranking member.
Warner’s military background began at age 17, when he served with the Navy during World War II. Years later, he interrupted law school to join the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He was appointed undersecretary of the Navy in 1969 and became Navy secretary in 1972.
Virginia Business Special Projects Editor Jessica Sabbath sat down with Warner to discuss his career and how his retirement will affect Virginia, which receives more U.S. military spending per capita than any other state. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
It’s really owing to a couple of things. One is the geography of the state. We have the largest naval base in the United States [Naval Station Norfolk], and in many respects it’s the largest in the world. You have the location of a number of Army bases that go back to the earliest times in this country, beginning with George Washington and Henry Morgan, who marched up the Valley of Virginia with his group, the Continental Army. You’ve had military leaders from the beginning of time in our state. We, the congressional delegation, feel we are like trustees during our tenure in the Congress. We’ve tried to care for the military interests in our state just as those who preceded us here.
VB: In 2006, you emphasized the importance of seniority. How will your retirement affect Virginia’s military installations?
I’m optimistic it will keep rolling right along. And whoever takes my seat will show the same interest as have I in taking care of the men and women in the armed forces, the very significant and industrial complex we have and the research and development complex in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Virginia is the No. 1 state in terms of military spending. [Virginia is projected to receive $56 billion in direct military spending in 2008, making it the state with the highest per capita spending in the country.] I’m not putting that out there bragging or anything; it’s just factual.
And it’s the culmination of teamwork of the congressional delegation. I’m looking at all the members — Democrat and Republican. We put our politics aside when we’re looking after the military interests. And in my 30 years here, I’ve served on the Armed Services committee with, first, Harry Byrd Jr. ...[former Sen.] Chuck Robb was on the committee with me; Jim Webb is on the committee with me; and so it’s been a teamwork effort between all of us through these years to help maintain Virginia’s position.
VB: In looking at the military on a broader scope, some people have said that the U.S. military is stretched thin. Do you agree?
Those of us who work daily, as do I, with the Department of Defense, we know that America is the strongest nation in the world in terms of its military capabilities. We know those capabilities are there to protect us and to try and help others in various parts of the world. But we’ve got, as the Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates — whom I’ve known for a very long time and I regard as a close personal friend and working associate, one of the finest that’s ever been in that position — and also Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs … These two men are not going to let our military be overstressed or overtaxed, so I think you leave it at that.
VB: Do you believe the Iraqi government is ready to take on more responsibility for its own security?
The Iraqi government is at long last beginning to take on greater responsibilities to operate their sovereign country. The Iraqi military has remarkably improved in their professionalism. I think with Gen. [David] Petraeus, now as the overall commander of that region [the top military commander in Iraq is being promoted in September to head the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq], and [Lt. Gen. Raymond T.] Odierno, [who takes over Petraeus’ spot as top commander in Iraq] …we’ve got an excellent military team in place, and I think at this point in time, we are all agreed that Gen. Petraeus will report to the president and the nation and Congress in September about the force structure that he
professionally deems necessary to enable Iraq to continue to take over the full reins of all their sovereign responsibility.
VB: Do you have a particular accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
It’s been a privilege to serve with and work for the men and women in the armed forces. There are quite a few things through the years that I’ve worked on — all the pay raises, Tricare program [managed health care for U.S. military personnel], and I just recently worked with [Democratic Sen.] Jim Webb on the new GI bill. I don’t say it’s an accomplishment; it’s just a privilege to have done these things.
VB: You’ve introduced some laws that relate to climate change and energy. When did this become an issue for you?
Climate change has a direct relationship to our military. There have been significant reports written. And I went into that area because of the impact on our military. I’m not here arguing all the merits of climate change, but clearly the severity of droughts, the contest over water, you can name a number of climate conditions which have precipitated wars and strife in nations … There is a relevance between what I call the current abnormalities in climate and the potential for our military to be involved largely on rescue, trying to get food in, and things of this nature.
VB: Do you think that the failure of the Climate Security Act shows that the public, business community and Congress aren’t quite ready to do what is necessary to effect change?
I’d use a different word than failure. The Senate did not invest more time basically because the White House was not interested in seeing Congress move at this time. But we laid a foundation for the next Congress, a very valuable foundation for the next Congress and the next president, so not all was lost.