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Merkley and the Beltway

Jeff Merkley

Senate candidate Jeff Merkley with staffer Carla Axtman, at campaign office/Stapilus

One of the first real issues engagements in the Oregon Senate race has emerged on an unlikely subject – the decision of who will build new tanker aircraft.

There is some Oregon backdrop to this, since Boeing – which didn’t get the contract, a point of heated dispute – does some work in Oregon. And since Arizona Senator John McCain, a close ally of Republican Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, has been crosswise with Boeing for some time. That generated a shot from state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, one of the Democrats running to oppose Smith in the general election. (His primary opponents are Steve Novick of Portland, Candy Neville of Eugene, David Loera of Salem, Pavel Goberman of Portland and Roger Obrist of Damascus.) After some quick back-and-forth, the Smith force withdrew, possibly recognizing they were giving Merkley a higher in-primary standing by engaging with him directly.

There was implicit in some of what Smith had to say a couple of cross-currents, one questioning Merkley’s expertise but another pointing to a New York Times op-ed from 1989 which Merkley – then still most of a decade away from entry into elective politics – had written urging cancellation of work on the stealth bomber. The idea of Merkley as a national defense expert pulling space on the Times‘ op-ed (albeit that the Paper of Record managed to misspell his name) almost two decades ago may come as a little surprising; why he would have written the article at all may seem a little puzzling.

It requires some explanation.

Merkley is best known in Oregon now (to the extent is well known) as a state House speaker, identified with local and state issues and politics. What’s less well known is his background in international relations and defense policy, a subject almost glossed over on his campaign’s own website. We sat down with Merkley last week to hear a little more about that background, which – especially if he becomes the Democratic nominee and winds up battling with Smith over iraq and other subjects this fall – could be highly pertinent.

Here’s how Merkley outlines his background on foreign relations – in all a good deal more extensive, it should be said, than we’d realized. (Warning: This is a long post.)

Merkley was in high school in 1972 when he signed up with the student exchange program run by the American Field Service (the organization founded in 1919), which exchanges students, thousands at a time, between the United States and other countries globally. (Its website says more than 30,000 are active in more than 50 counties, and there are 350,000 alumni.) Only a few then went from the United States to Africa; Merkley was one of six sent to Ghana, to a town with a population possibly between five and ten thousand. “I went to a humble family in a very small town, or a modestly small town,” he recalled. “We were surrounded by families struggling to earn enough money to feed their kids the next day.” His host family’s house had been constructed as part of a government program, and so had limited running water in the courtyard and one electric outlet, and one electrical appliance, an iron. “It and the bicycle (which he occasionally borrowed to visit nearby communities) were the two most valuable possessions of the family,” he said. “For me to go walking into a place like that as a young Caucasian 6-3 kid in villages where probably very few Caucasians had set foot in, it was quite an interesting engagement.” That summer he also visited Uganda, not long after Idi Amin had taken power there, and had begun his crackdowns – throwing out many of the British residents there at the time.

Merkley said that when he had left home, he’d thought of his family’s three-bedroom ranch house as modest; “when I returned from West Africa, I thought of it as a mansion . . . Garages stuck in my mind, because we not only had a home for our family, we even had a home for our car.” He said “it gave me a sense of the diversity of the world,” how fortunate Americans were in their freedom, government and prosperity, but also taking note how different each country was from another. He was hooked on the world at large; for the next decade and a half, that would be his professional life, and more.

In the summer of 1976, when he was 19 and a student at Stanford University in California (his major and eventual degree was in international relations), Merkley interned for Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, getting some exposure to the way the federal government worked. A year later, with the Carter Administration in place, he returned to the Beltway for another internship, with a nonprofit organization working on negotiations concerning the law of the sea.

There were more internships and work projects on international relations in the late 70s and early 80s, an extensive list. He worked at one point for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York City. He worked for a Quaker organization in a village in Mexico building and operating a camp involved with environmental issues. (While there, in 1980, he and a friend toured much of Central America as well, traveling cheaply; this was a violent period in the region, and Merkley recalls how on one occasion in Guatemala he spotted a man lying in the street to help him up before realizing he’d been gunned to death only moments before.) He was an editorial intern with Foreign Affairs magazine. After graduation at Stanford in 1979 he attended graduate school at the nationally-known Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. One of those Stanford semesters was spent at Florence, Italy, which he effectively used as a base for hitchiking through Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, to and around the West Bank. Sandwiched in between the Stanford stretches in 1981 he was an intern for the Foreign Service New Delhi, India, and travels in that area. He was graduated from Princeton in 1982.

All of that sounds like closely-directed preparation – in 1982 Merkley was still 25 years old – for a career in the Foreign Service, and Merkley said he did apply for a job there, and was accepted. But then he decided against that track. During his internship with the Foreign Service in New Delhi, he said, he found it was becoming an agency simply reporting back to Washington on local conditions, and staffers were discouraged from anything that smacked of “going native”; Merkley said that when he went to another country, he liked to immerse himself in the culture. Instead, he looked toward the policy side, and applied to the Presidential Management Fellows program, and thought it might be more impactful.

That program (created in 1977 and still in existence) is a paid fellowship lasting generally two years, placing the fellows in any of many federal agencies (but paid for centrally, not by those agencies), putting them to work on specific projects. Merkley said he was most specifically interested then in two areas: Increasing prosperity and reducing poverty in third world countries, and curbing nuclear proliferation and limiting nuclear weaponry. He wound up devoting most of his next few years to the second. He was in a class of about 200, applying for various positions in the agencies.

“The secretary of defense position [based in that office] was the premier international position,” Merkley recalled. “I was one of 12 finalists.” Many Defense applicants typically have strong military background, which wasn’t on Merkley’s resume. As he interviewed for the job, he recalled, early questions had to do with his background – working for the Quakers, focus on non-military foreign relations, and notably his internship for the pacifistic Hatfield. “Why would we hire someone like you for the Department of Defense?” he recalled being asked. Merkley said his reply was that national security and defense involves the military but also needs to include much more, taking in a broad understanding of the world, and he contended a voice like his should be part of the mix at the Pentagon. He got the job, and a top secret security clearance.

In that job, he recalled, “you interview people around the Pentagon, because you aren’t on their payroll; your pay is paid elsewhere,” affording some freedom in asking sometimes touchy questions. “You get to step in and take on some engaging projects. In the course of that I had many different kinds of experiences.” The Pentagon at that time was overseen by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and Merkley didn’t need long to recognize “my background wasn’t military and I was out of synch with the Reagan Administration.”

He worked on a variety of subjects and held briefings on the topic around the Pentagon. “I did studies related to deterrence, nuclear deterrence and force survivability,” he said, “set up a committee to negotiate between the right-wing policy folks and the non-right-wing scientists, the research and development folks in the Pentagon, because they have dramatically differing views on the export of technology.” This was a significant Cold War debate. One side, he said, was concerned about stolen secrets and in response favored controls, restrictions on access to information and stronger classification of data. “That was the Richard Perle side of the argument,” he said. The counter argument was that those tactics would not much slow the leakage of information, but would slow down American progress in technology, since much of the advance in American tech compared to Soviet tech was attributable to the free exchange and development of information on the American side. “I was asked to staff this steering committee for technology transfer, to get the two sides to talk to each other,” Merkley said, and spent several months setting it up. The debate and discussion, of course, went on much longer.

When the fellowship ended, Merkley took a permanent – as opposed to time-limited – job, this time as a nuclear arms analyst with the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO is the main number-crunching and budget analysis agency reporting directly to Congress; its web site today describes it as “an agency of more than 230 employees located in the Ford House Office Building at the foot of Capitol Hill. Well over half of its staff have advanced degrees in economics, public policy, and a variety of other disciplines.”

There, Merkley was involved in a variety of defense-related studies, briefings and at least two major papers. (which he indicated are still available electronically). One concerned the potential enhancements to the B1B bomber, and another other on trident missiles, “which I wrote an extensive appendix to, to give people the tools to understand something that wasn’t much discussed . . . There was concern among some of us that that kind of ability was potentially destabilizing and needed to be paid attention to. . .”

“My next major project was going to be the B2 stealth bomber,” he said. “The Reagan Administration was keeping that in compartmentalized that is beyond top secret, and the impression was that they were were keeping it out of sight until it could be largely into production, contracts could be into so many congressional districts that it would be hard for Congress to have an objective conversation about it. I as an analyst couldn’t get all the details, and Congress couldn’t get all the details. But, you could go to the library and read books on stealth technology. I checked them all out, and read them. So if [for example] you wanted to know about how the layers of paint would absorb radar energy, you could go to the library and read about it. . . . But nobody could talk about the details of the stealth bomber at any level other than a very broad level.”

Last week, Merkley noted, he held a press conference to criticize outsourcing of new air tanker construction to Airbus, noting among other things that technology developed in the course of building the planes could have spinoff economic effects if located in this country. Smith responded by pointing to Merkley’s article from the 80s. “In some ways, Smith drew some attention to my expertise,” he suggested.

In the late 80s, he said, “I was waiting for the Reagan Administration and then the [first] Bush Administration to allow there to be this substantive conversation on the B2, and so I took a leave of absence from the Congressional Budget Office, while I was waiting for that. And six months later, it still wasn’t possible to write that study, and so then I resigned from the Congressional Budget Office. It was unusual to have such a major, major investment not vetted through a congressional examination.”

His Times op-ed (“The Stealth Fiasco”) concluded, “Until now, military secrecy has choked off serious debate. But if Administration and Congress can no longer duck the issue. If Stealth cannot make contributions to national security proportional to its cost, it should be canceled.”

Of the current Bush Administration, he remarked – as on the campaign trail that it is “a complete disaster on national security. They have taken and launched us into a war in a nation that did not comprise a terrorist threat to the United States, completely distracting us from real terrorism, setting up an enormous loss of our national resources, enormous loss of our national soft power – response and trust, that other nations want to work with you. They’ve made the world much less safe.”

Would Merkley pursue a spot on the Armed Services Committee, or related work, if he’s elected? That was less clear. “You know, you don’t have lot of choice when you’re a freshman senator,” he said. But he added, “It’s important to have senators who have enough background to distinguish between a real threat to national security, from the manufactured threat to national security.”

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