U.S. National Security Policy in the Indo-Pacific: A Conversation with Senator Tammy Duckworth
August 10, 2021
Beverly Kirk: Good morning, everyone. And thanks so much for joining us. I’m Beverly Kirk, director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative, and a fellow in the International Security Program here at CSIS.
We are very pleased this morning to welcome Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth for a conversation on U.S. national security policy in the Indo-Pacific. She recently visited the region earlier this summer, and we are very excited to hear what she has to say about what she found in the region. Senator Duckworth is an Iraq War veteran, purple heart recipient, and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She serves on the Armed Services Committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and the Small Business and entrepreneurship Committee.
The Smart Women, Smart Power Speakers Series is possible thanks to our founding part, Citi. And we are very grateful for Citi’s continued support of our efforts to empower women and amplify their voices. It is my great pleasure now to welcome Candi Wolff, head of global government affairs at Citi, for remarks. Candi.
Candida Wolff: Great. Thank you, Bev. And thank you all for joining us this morning online for yet another great event in our Smart Women, Smart Power Series for 2021. Citi has been the supporting – has been supporting this series for the past six years. And it’s an effort to bring together women leaders in foreign policy, in national security, and the business community to convene a dialogue on the most pressing issues facing our world. At Citi we proudly call ourselves the leading global bank, as we’re present in more than 100 countries. We believe that our global footprint gives us a unique perspective on the economic and political challenges and opportunities around the world.
And I can’t tell you how thrilled we are today to have Senator Tammy Duckworth join us to talk about her extraordinary life of service to our country in so many different capacities. I know she’s here to talk about U.S. national security in the Indo-Pacific, which is near and dear to Citi’s heart as well. But I think that the Senator could tackle almost any issue that’s thrown at her, as is evidenced by the comments that Bev just made about her diverse slate of committee assignments in the Senate. And as a member of the Senate Democratic Special Committee on Climate Crises, I know that Senator Duckworth is passionate about building a clean energy future – a passion that Citi shares as well. So I look forward to perhaps hearing her views on the challenges with respect to climate change, as well as those in the Indo-Pacific.
So without further delay, I will pass it to Nina Easton to get us started. And thank you, again, for joining.
Nina Easton: Great. Thank you so much. Senator, I am just so honored to be speaking with you today. You’re a war hero. You’ve broken through so many glass ceilings. And it’s really terrific to have you here. So thank you, thank you for – and I know obviously you’re in the middle of votes on infrastructure. So thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.
Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Il): Well, it’s a real pleasure to be here. You’re going to see me mute on and off because there’s all sorts of buzzers that go on here – (laughs) – in the Capitol Building when we’re in the middle of votes. So I don’t want those to interrupt. But it’s a real pleasure to get to be here, and to see everyone today. Thank you.
Ms. Easton: Thank you. And, you know, I know the main topic of this, of course, is the Indo-Pacific and your trip – your recent trip there. But as Candi mentioned, you are on the Armed Services Committee and can tackle just about any issue. So we need to talk about that frontpage foreign policy issue, Afghanistan. As you know, the Taliban forces have moved aggressively through Afghanistan, capturing now six provincial capitals. You know, from here we worry about women and girls and the people of Afghanistan. And of course, there’s the national security concern about creating a fertile territory for ISIS and al-Qaida. And I want to ask you, did the Biden administration make a mistake in withdrawing? Should that policy be recalibrated? What is your perspective on that?
Sen. Duckworth Well, my perspective is that we need to look and see what our policy is going to be. Is America – you know, what does the American people want? Do they want us to occupy and hold Afghanistan against Taliban forever? If that’s the case, then we should definitely send in significantly more troops. But we’ve been there 20 years and we’ve spent a lot of America’s treasure, not the least of which are the lives of the men and women who have died on that foreign – in that foreign soil, and the Afghanis still have not stepped up to be able to take care of their own country. We spent over $98 billion training the national security forces in Afghanistan and you saw that they couldn’t even – after all that time and all of those resources, that they’re still not capable of holding their own ground.
So my question is, what do we, the American people, want? If we want to stay there, then let’s have a new discussion on a new authorization for use of military force. The authorization for use of military force which justified us going into Afghanistan in the first place was about 9/11, was about going after and capturing those who attacked us on 9/11, and we did that. We killed Osama bin Laden. We punished the people who attacked us. And that – so that AUMF is no longer valid and we need to repeal it. And then, if we want to stay there – you know, if the new mission is to hold Afghanistan to protect its women and girls, then we should have that vote here in the United States Senate – at which point, once Congress decides that’s what we want to do and that’s what we want to spend another, you know, $2 trillion on that, then sure, then we can send forces back. But until then, you know, we’ve kept forces there far longer than necessary for the mission that they were originally given.
And if the mission is to nation build, then let’s put resources behind the State Department. Let’s put resources into USAID, into the Peace Corps, into the diplomatic efforts to try to nation build there. But don’t send the military in to do a diplomat’s job. The military has done its job.
So I do agree with President Biden for pulling out because the military met its mission: Find and killed those who attacked us on 9/11. They did that. Now, if there’s a new mission, then we should – the American people – have a real honest discussion about it. We in Congress in particular need to, you know, take a deep breath and have that discussion and then cast that vote on the floor.
Ms. Easton: And do you see that happening? Do you see – is there movement towards having that kind of discussion?
Sen. Duckworth: There is much more movement about let’s look at all of the authorizations for use of military force because we’re still using that post-9/11 AUMF to justify us being in Africa going after Boko Haram. Boko Haram had nothing to do with 9/11. Now, they’re bad guys and we need to go after them, and in fact Africa is really the place where we’re getting a new nexus for the development of terrorist, you know, forces. So I think we should be there. I think we should be opposing Boko Haram. Then let’s have that discussion, because it’s wrong and it’s – and it’s not supportive of our military men and women to send them on a mission and not tell them what that mission is, and that’s where we are right now.
So I do have – I’ve had many conversations on both sides of the aisle about the need to sunset the old authorizations and have the debate and vote on the new authorizations. I think most people would not want to vote on it because it’s just really easy to hide your head in the sand when you choose not to confront and just use an out-of-date AUMF, which is what we’ve been doing.
Ms. Easton: Spoken like a true experienced war veteran. Very interesting.
Let’s turn to the Indo-Pacific region. You were just there in June on a bipartisan trip to South Korea and Taiwan. Critics say that Indo – the Indo-Pacific is lacking the resources that it needs to stand up to an increasingly aggressive China. Obviously, you’re familiar with that concern. I wanted to quote – this is a question that was submitted by Michael Jabaley, who’s U.S. Navy retired. I thought he asked this question quite well: What do you view as the most critical capability shortfalls for the U.S. military for threats in the INDOPACOM? And which of these do you believe Congress must address through additional funding? What’s your overall perspective on that?
Sen. Duckworth: Well, if you just look strictly military, we certainly need to have a longer, a bigger, and more persistent presence in – all across the Indo-Pacific region.
But a second part to that is economic visibility. We’ve not been there economically the way the Chinese have been there, that the PRC – let me just say the PRC has been there. And so the PRC, they don’t have the separation between their commercial-economic sector and their government and their national security sector. What they – everything that they do ties together. For example, the civilian fleet of – you know, fishing fleet that they have all across Indo-Pacific is actually a pseudo-military fleet. They have military officers on board, they’re trained militarily, so this fleet that’s out there supposedly fishing is really there to basically occupy territory and be used in a strategic military way when the PRC wants them to be. And we’re simply not there in the same way.
I’m not proposing we send a fleet of – (laughs) – you know, pseudo-military fishing fleet – (laughs) – but we need to be there much more presently. And we’ve not been there in that way since the ’70s and ’80s, and we have to be there economically. In fact, I’m going to be leading a congressional delegation in the Fall on economic issues to follow up on the national security one that I went on in the spring to talk about the fact that the U.S. needs to be there, needs to be present to provide an alternative to the PRC, both in terms of national security being there but also economically as well.
Ms. Easton: And of course the TPP at one point, the trade agreement, was an alternative to China, the PRC. Do you see – is that where we should be heading?
Sen. Duckworth: I think that – yes. We certainly need more trade agreements, either multilateral or bilateral. If we can’t get to multilateral, let’s revive some of the bilateral agreements with the friends and allies we already have in the region – Thailand, Singapore, places that are declared allies, declared friends of the U.S. – and then let’s work on countries like Indonesia and Vietnam and have some trade with them. Look, I’m from Illinois; my three biggest products in Illinois are pork, corn, and soybean. (Laughs.) What part of the world do you think buys the most corn, pork, and soybean? It’s Asia. So it’s in the best interest of American farmers for us to have some of these trade agreements as well.
Ms. Easton: Speaking of both trade and that sort of intertwining of economics and trade and military is the threat to Taiwan, and the threat from the PRC’s risen so precipitously that the chair of the world’s most important chip maker, TSMC, felt compelled to address the prospect of an invasion by China in a recent earnings call and he declared that no one wants to disrupt the semiconductor supply chain in Taiwan. It sounded like a message to Beijing. How concerned are you about – [audio break]–
Sen. Duckworth: [In progress following audio break] – that, you know, is doing everything they can to destabilize the democracy that exists in Taiwan. They were spreading – when I showed up, people were saying things like the United States is so rich with vaccines we’re giving it to our pets, to our cats and dogs, before we would even send it to the Taiwanese people. So when I showed up with Senator Sullivan and Senator Coons to say no, we’re sending vaccines to Taiwan and, unlike the PRC, there are no strings attached. These are strict donations because you were there and donated PPE to us at the very beginning. When all the PPE was being manufactured in China and we couldn’t get any, Taiwan sent us – people don’t realize this: Taiwan sent us PPE and respirators at the beginning – at the beginning of 2020. So this is just us being us being reciprocal in friendship.
Ms. Easton: Yeah, this is a great point. People completely forget that.
Sen. Duckworth: They forget that. And so people – the people of Taiwan were just so grateful that we were there that we didn’t – this was a symbol that we were not abandoning them and we – I am very much concerned that the PRC will attempt to take Taiwan. What we have to do is deter them from it. I don’t – you know, once they start, it’s much harder to repel them from territory than it is to just let them know and let them make the calculus that it is far too costly for them to even attempt to try.
Ms. Easton: How do you think that would – could play out? What are scenarios that you think are realistic?
Sen. Duckworth: Well, you know, in terms of the deterrence part, I’m already working on some things. In this year’s DOD budget, this year’s NDAA, I actually had two provisions on it, one is to create, much like the state partnership for peace program, which exists right now where the U.S. National Guard actually – every state adopts a foreign country. I’m from Illinois so we have a lot of Poles in Chicago. We have been in a state partnership for peace program with the Polish military for 27 years. It’s one of the oldest in the entire program. And so the U.S. – the Army National Guard in Illinois has been training alongside the Polish military, advising them for 27 years, and so, like, the young officers that I knew when I first started in my Army career are now generals. And this begins a habitual relationship, and so I have a proposal to bring Taiwan into that type of relationship with one of the national guards from one of our states. And then also in the NDAA this year I directed the DOD to look and actively find more training opportunities for the U.S. military and the Taiwan defense forces. So you’re going to see that we’re going to have a much more persistent and more visible presence of the United States when it comes to Taiwan and the Taiwan Straits.
Ms. Easton: That’s interesting. And that actually raises a question from Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg, who points out that as the Pentagon is reviewing its Asia-Pacific strategy there’s interest in U.S. ground-based weapons along – putting them along that island chain that’s close to China. What are our allies saying about this? And would they allow ground-based weapons – which is something the U.S. could deploy in the region after withdrawing from the INF Treaty with Russia in 2019?
Sen. Duckworth: Well, we have to engage with them. I think some of them will eventually. I was in Southeast Asia. I was in Vietnam and Thailand, and I went to the Shangri-La Dialogue the last time it was held in person in Singapore, and had many, many conversations. And the sense that I got was, you know, these nations that are really on the frontlines – Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand in particular – are the only – you know, the three nations that are really standing up to the PRC – attempting to stand up. But it’s – the PRC is such an overwhelming force in the region that we have to give those countries something to hang their hats on when they’re opposing the PRC. For example, when the PRC’s trying to build new islands, and the like.
And then for Vietnam to really say, look, the Americans are here. We can’t do what you want to do, give you basing rights. The Americans are already here. Is something that these countries need. So those ground-based systems – I mean, it’s certainly something to think about, but we have to work on those relationships to be allowed to base those systems there. But aside from that, we just have to be in the region much more. People very much want us there. For example, when we talk about ensuring freedom of navigation on the seas throughout the archipelagos in Southeast Asia, that is very welcome.
When we say: We’re here not to make you choose between the U.S. and the PRC, but we are here to stand up for the rule of international law, that is something that all of those nations – even those that are hesitant to become allies with the U.S. – would very much welcome, because it allows them to hang their hat on that and say to the Chinese: You can’t do that. The Americans are here. You’re not going to be able to do that because Americans are not going to let you tie up, you know, these straits. And you’re going to have to adhere to the rule of international law. So just being a presence in the region is desperately needed.
Ms. Easton: Well, do you think the administration is showing the sense of urgency that you clearly think is there?
Sen. Duckworth: You know, I think so. You know, I’ve had many conversations with the administration, and different parts of the administration – from the NSC, to the DOD, to State Department, and even at Department of Commerce. And they are very receptive. I spoke with a delegation that’s currently at the Tokyo Olympic Games – well, they just ended – who are on their way to Thailand at length about, you know, pushing for more vaccines for Thailand. The vaccine diplomacy that we are doing is very much welcome.
And what’s critical about it is that we are giving vaccines without any strings attached, which is very different from what the Chinese are doing. They’re coming in with their Sinovac, but there are all sorts of strings attached to it. And so when U.S. shows up and says: Here, we’re here because some of you have been there to help us, but we’re here because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a global pandemic. That really helps. And in my conversations with the administration and all the different parts that I’ve touched about Southeast Asia, there is a real understanding within the Biden camp – within the Biden camp of the need for this. And I think there’s a real dedication to it as well.
Ms. Easton: Well, of course, you were part of the announcement in June of $750,000 doses going to Taiwan. And that’s since been tripled to 2.5 million. And, yeah, could you talk just a little bit more about the numbers that you see that will be coming out in terms of vaccines going to these – the region?
Sen. Duckworth: Yeah. So in the very beginning – when we went there in June, we had not announced any of the vaccine numbers for any of the countries. We had announced the nations that were going to be part of the first cohort receiving vaccines, but we had not announced any numbers. And I spoke with the White House and said, hey. We were supposed to go to the Shangri-La Dialogue. I was leading a delegation there. And so was Senator Sullivan from Alaska. He’s a Republican. And everybody was shutting down, but South Korea was still open. And we pushed – we both pushed the administration pretty hard and said: Hey, why – you know, Taiwan is being blockaded by China, right?
And what China had done through the vaccine program was basically block Taiwan off from any of the vaccines and telling the Taiwanese that if you want vaccines you have to buy our vaccines. And they were telling other nations that if they provided vaccines to Taiwan then they would not – China would not engage in trade with them. And so all of these nations, like, around the – especially in the Indo-Pacific were just, you know, holding off. So Taiwan was actually the only nation in the world that was being blockaded from vaccines by the Chinese – by the PRC.
And so we got to South Korea and it was very much touch and go. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to get to Taiwan. There were no commercial flights. And the administration agreed with us and actually sent a military aircraft and flew us in from a military base in South Korea to a military – to Taiwan. And, in fact, we couldn’t even tell the South Koreans that we were going to Taiwan because they would – we would have placed them in a very difficult situation with the Chinese.
So we had to drive two hours to get to a military base, get on a military flight, go to Taiwan. We’re on the ground for just three hours. Never left the airport. Made the announcement, and that just turned everything around in the country in terms of the morale of the people and knowing that they were not being abandoned.
And so, you know, even though it was just 750,000 initially, the first tranche, we’re now well over 4 million vaccines to Taiwan. Thailand, we announced 1.5 [million] in initial tranche but another 2.5 million is coming. Indonesia, we’ve also sent them several million as well. All of those are desperately needed and very much welcome.
Ms. Easton: That must have been a really remarkable three hours, by the way.
Sen. Duckworth: It was. It was. We got done with our day at, like, 10:00 at night meeting with the – either the speaker of the house in South Korea – maybe it was the foreign minister, I don’t know. We had a very nice dinner. Couldn’t say anything about what we were doing. We were done at 10, went back to the hotel room, had a 0300 show, and was on a flight, on the ground, our first meeting in Taiwan at 0730, and had three hours of meetings and then took off and left. But it was well worth it because the people of Taiwan deserve to know that they were not – that America would not abandon them.
Ms. Easton: Yeah. You know, one country we haven’t touched on as part of the region is Australia, and – which has really been in the crosshairs of the PRC, particularly with the raised questions about where the COVID-19 virus originated from. And now they are – Australia is modernizing its military and engaging in military exercises with the U.S. Talk about that.
Sen. Duckworth: Well, Australians have been there with us. They were there with us every time we needed allies to stand by our side, much like the Thais were. You know, they were with us in Korea in – during the Korean War. They were there in Vietnam. They were there when we needed help in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Australia has been one of our most stalwart allies and we need to be there and support them. This is all part of our need to be in the region and Australia, you know, has really been playing a leading role in the Southeast Asia region, in particular, but Indo-Pacific overall and then standing up to the PRC.
So yes, we have to, certainly, reach out and support the Australians even more. But I think this is a case where we let the Australians tell us what kind of help they need and what kind of help they can accept from us and then be ready to provide it to them.
Ms. Easton: So Candi, importantly, mentioned climate change. Do you see – when you talk about economic cooperation with the region, do you see climate change as part of that, and if so, what specifically are you – are you looking at doing?
Sen. Duckworth: Well, I think climate change is an opportunity for economic cooperation. One of the things that when I went over in the beginning of – in the spring, we stopped in South Korea, and South Korea – this was two weeks after the Moon-Biden dialogues had happened and South Korea had announced they were going to, I believe, make $38 billion in investments in manufacturing in the United States or with American concerns. I think this is one of the places that we could actually work on is take advantage of this opportunity and work on things like battery storage technologies.
I think that we should be looking at how we work with nuclear fuel is one and developing technologies. You know, any carbon-neutral future will have nuclear as part of it and how do we reuse the already – the fuel – the dirty fuel that already exists. All of these technologies are things that we have an opportunity to invest in so that we not only lead the world in setting the standards where we need to be net carbon neutral but also in selling to the rest of the world the great technologies to get us to those programs.
And so Illinois, most people don’t know, is a major, major energy state. We have more nuclear reactors than any other state in the nation, 13 of them. We have coal. We have fracking. We have, you know, state-of-the-art biofuels. I think biofuels is, really, a way that we should be looking at investing in towards a carbon-neutral future.
So I think of it as an opportunity for America[n] ingenuity and American manufacturing to really lead the world in this – in this field, and partnering and using that as a form of diplomacy and partnering with – and making new friends in parts of the world that maybe we’ve not been as present in in recent years.
Ms. Easton: Right. So we always like at these events to include as many audience questions as we can. Joseph of the U.S. Army Pacific asks: Senator, last month you and Senator Cornyn introduced the Taiwan Partnership Act, supporting integrated cooperation between the U.S. National Guard and Taiwan. You did touch on that. Is there more that you would like to say about your vision for that relationship moving forward?
Sen. Duckworth: Yes. So I want that to become a habitual relationship. If you’ve never had a chance to look at it, look up the State Partnership for Peace Program. It is a hidden – a hidden tool in the arsenal that we have, and in fact, it is very well respected, very well – it’s paid dividends for a small amount of money for us. Hawaii is partnered with Thailand, I think Washington state with Indonesia. But yes, so to have that habitual relationship as a – on the National Guard to the Taiwan defense forces is a way to really engage and bring the Taiwan defense forces up to a readiness level and a level of performance which they’re already, you know, pretty much there with U.S. forces and to integration with U.S. forces so that, should the unthinkable happen and U.S. forces need to show up we’re not starting from scratch – we’ve already been training with the Taiwan defense forces and they’re already using American equipment and they’ve been coming – you know, their leaders have been going to American schools and the like. And so this – you know, if it’s anything like the relationship that Illinois has with Poland, for example, it’s a really excellent one because you’re doing everything from disaster response to, you know, making sure that you’re ready to defend territory.
Ms. Easton: That’s fascinating. And as you say, that’s a toolkit that a lot – most people don’t know about, so that’s – that is fascinating.
Sen. Duckworth: If you talk to any of the commanders – I mean, I’ve asked this question of CENTCOM, NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM, you know, INDOPAC – and you talk to any of the four-stars and say, what do you think of the Partnership for Peace Program, they – and usually, you know, active duty are not always, you know, praising the National Guard the way they should, but boy do they go – they have nothing but accolades for this program.
Ms. Easton: Great. Mary asks: Would the U.S have a competitive edge by teaming up with countries and investing in their education and technological development, a new age Marshall doctrine? For example, help them build infrastructure, give them the tools to develop strategies for real threats to stability such as changes in climate.
Sen. Duckworth: Oh my gosh, there is so much opportunity there. Remember that people still – I mean, our advantage is our culture, is our values as a nation. People want to come to the United States and they want their kids to come to schools here. So we should be investing in bringing people from other nations to come to schools in the U.S., because once they get here and they go to an American university or American college for a few years, they fall in love with the freedoms and the values and the equality that exists in American culture. Look, we have problems here in our country, but we are far more egalitarian, we are far better in terms of the wealth of our nation and our culture than so many other countries. And so they bring that back, and now those folks are habitual. They want to work with Americans because they understand America better. They know Americans. They’ve made those relationships.
And if we’re smart about it, we bring them here to go to school, then we give them a visa. We give them a visa so that they can stay here longer and then they can start and become entrepreneurs. And those entrepreneurs will start businesses here in the U.S. and will have ties to their home countries that will then engage in much more economic activity between the U.S. and those nations. And so that was something that we really did well in the ’70s and we just haven’t done since the ’70s and early ’80s. And we need to reengage in that, which is why I’m leading an economic CODEL to – (laughs) – Indo-Pacific this coming fall, trying to restart some of this.
Ms. Easton: So Ethan asks: As someone who works on foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I’m constantly thinking about how foreign policy initiatives do or do not benefit all Americans, including those in the Midwest. How would you justify the U.S. commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan-PRC dispute to the people of Illinois?
Sen. Duckworth: Well, what I would say to them is that not having a peaceful resolution will cost us because we would then have to send our treasure, our men and women in uniform, there. The Taiwan Straits are a key route of economic – international economic activity, just as the Straits of Malacca in Singapore are, and we’re going to find ourselves having to defend those. So much of the goods and trade that come into Illinois comes through there. Illinois is heavily vested in – is dependent on trade in the Indo-Pacific region, and if we cut off and allow China to take over that trade, it’s going to hurt Illinois farmers. Again, pork, corn, soybean. Not to mention we are – we have many concentrations of tool and die manufacturers in Illinois. Some of the largest concentrations in the nation in Illinois. And all of those companies, and all of those businesses, and all of those jobs are tied to having good connections in a peaceful INDOPACOM where we can do trade and do joint, you know, entrepreneurship.
Ms. Easton: So, Senator, the CNN just said the bipartisan infrastructure bill has passed the Senate – (laughs) – and onward. So there you go.
Sen. Duckworth: Wonderful. Yes, I’m sorry. Maybe – I don’t know if you heard. Like, I don’t have a TV here. I keep taking looks over so when the next votes are going to start. (Laughter.)
Ms. Easton: Yeah, but you have more votes coming on the budget resolution now.
Sen. Duckworth: Yeah, the budget resolution process. This is vote-a-rama.
Ms. Easton: Yeah, it’s vote-a-rama. So, yeah, just so everybody knows, once – now that the infrastructure bill has passed, the Senate now will take up the full-on reconciliation bill – a much larger kind of infrastructure-plus package. So and that’s today, so you have a lot of voting ahead of you.
But I did want to – we have a short amount of time left. I did want to go back to another passion of yours, and that’s immigrant military service and the importance of an expedited path for citizenship to those immigrants who are serving in the – in the military. Talk a little bit about the kind of setbacks you’ve seen in the last couple years, and what you hope going forward.
Sen. Duckworth: Well, my ancestors – my five-times removed great-grandfathers were British subjects of a British lord. They were indentured servants. They were brought to the – well, before them, their ancestors, were brought to the U.S. And then they fought in the revolution and they gained American citizenship through service in the American Revolution, and a plot of land. And that’s – my family has benefitted from that ever since. And so there’s this long history in this nation of people gaining citizenship through service in our military.
And with such a matter, of course, if you told Americans today that we have people who are not American citizens serving in our military and they can’t get American citizenship, people would be flabbergasted. They would not – they would think, what? Once you serve don’t you become a citizen? They think it’s automatic. And it used to sort of be automatic. Under the Bush administration, President George W. Bush during the Iraq War actually signed an executive order to expedite so that someone as soon as they go through basic training or if they’re on their way to a deployment to Iraq or, you know, anywhere, that we would process their citizenship paperwork and they could become citizens.
That was really – that program really was allowed to atrophy. And the Trump administration actively worked to end the program, in that they actively took out at basic training stations the State Department offices that helped process citizenship paperwork, not just at basic training stations but also at military bases all around the world. And so now you actually have people who serve an entire tour, or even 10 years, get out, and they’re still not citizens. I first found out about this because when I was in command of a unit at Midway Airport of Black Hawks, and we were alerted that we were going to be mobilized to Iraq.
And then I found out that there were two of my soldiers, that I had known for 12 years, were not citizens. They were green card holders. And we expedited their citizenship very quickly, so they became citizens before we went. But that didn’t happen to a lot of folks. And you actually have people who are veterans of our military who’ve been deported.
Ms. Easton: That’s amazing.
Sen. Duckworth: Yeah.
Ms. Easton: I wanted to ask you, turn a little bit now to a personal note. I mean, it’s been noted that President Biden, like you, forged a political identity around trauma and personal resilience. And you in particular, you know, you said in an article last year, you know, you were kind of reflecting on why some troops come home from trauma and survive and thrive and others come home and kill themselves. And you went on to talk about after your devastating injury it wasn’t easy. And you know, here you are, a senator with two small children, which is also amazing. Could you give us – give us an insight into the inner strength that you drew on. And give us some – you know, what inspires you daily? And what got you through it?
Sen. Duckworth: You know, I tried to explore a little bit of that – of that recently. I wrote a book – actually it was an accident book. I was answers to my daughters. I have mommy-Abigail time every night before she goes to bed and she can ask me anything and I won’t get mad at her. And she – one day she asked me: How can someone else’s mommy couldn’t have gone to war and lost her legs? Because she really wanted me to have my legs so I could do things with her, like play soccer.
Ms. Easton: And this is the six-year-old, and you also have a three, right?
Sen. Duckworth: Another three-year-old, right. And I was trying to answer her and, you know, why America was worth it. And she asked me again last night, how come someone else’s mommy couldn’t go? And I said, well, you know, I was hungry as a kid. And because I was hungry, you know, people – there were programs that gave me food. And so I want to make sure I protect those programs for other people. And this is a great country and I wanted to defend her.
So I – but in writing that book, I ended up exploring this idea of resiliency, which the military has been grappling for a while. And, I don’t know, there’s just something about my personality. I don’t think it’s anything I did. But I think ever since I was a kid, I just break things down into the most miniscule steps possible if something is overwhelming. And so I don’t let the bigger picture overwhelm me. I just break it down.
And I tell this story in the book, where I woke up in a hospital and they – you know, find out I have no legs. I can’t move any part of my body. But I figured I could move one wrist. And the nurse said: Well, if you want to get better, you start moving that wrist. So I started doing three sets of 10 repetitions of moving my wrist like this, you know? And I wasn’t thinking of that as my journey to overcome everything. It was just, like, if I want to be able to scratch my nose, I better be able to move this hand. So I’m going to – I’m just going to focus on that, moving that wrist. And that is – that’s what’s worked for me. Everybody has their own way of dealing with it, with different things.
But I remember being in the Army – and I hate running. I hate running. (Laughter.) Honestly, I hate running. They’d be, like, let’s go on a 10-mile fun run. Number one, it’s not fun. It’s never fun. I don’t care what they say. You can do all the singing you want, it still sucks. And I literally would break down my run to, like, OK, if I can run to that next tree, then I can get to the next tree, and then the next tree, and that’s how I’ve always just survived. I’ve never thought of myself as overcoming anything. I’ve always thought of myself as surviving it and getting to the goal that I want.
Ms. Easton: Even when – even before your injury and even before when you – I mean, you overcame obstacles, obviously, to become a female helicopter combat pilot. So even then that’s how you approached things?
Sen. Duckworth: That’s how I approached it, yeah. I just always knew – you know, like I knew I wanted to fly Black Hawks and then I figured out what were the steps. OK, well, you have to get a really high mark on your hydraulics quiz and then you have to get a really high mark when you fly – when you take the flying test for this or that. And I just – it was just, for me, always one step at a time. I am a – I’m a list checker, so I love to make lists and, like, check things off, and that makes me happy. (Laughs.)
Ms. Easton: It’s gotten you really far, too. (Laughter.) It’s gotten you, like –
Sen. Duckworth: It’s gotten me really far, yeah. Yeah. It’s worked. You know, one step at a time can be – is the start of a very long – could be – start a very long journey.
Ms. Easton: Yeah. And you know, you grew up, you know, overseas a lot, a lot in Asia, and you have said that you – your upbringing gave you an idealized version of America. You talk about some of your earliest memories of the Khmer Rouge taking over Cambodia, for example. And so you do have this, like, love of America, and I wanted you to reflect on America over the past year and a half where we’ve had a – coping with a global pandemic, we’ve led the world in the creation of vaccines. On the other hand, we saw the murder of George Floyd and the important rise of a racial justice movement. We’ve seen attacks on Asian Americans over COVID-19. We’ve seen what happened in the Capitol on January 6th. But we’ve also seen a[n] election in 2020 and the peaceful transfer of power. So when you put all that together, what are you thinking about America these days?
Sen. Duckworth: What I think about America is we allow all that to happen. If this were an autocracy, that wouldn’t happen, right? It’s messy. Democracy is messy. And we are a big enough country with big enough hearts in it to work our way through this.
And yes, there are some really bad tendencies and really terrible, terrible, horrible parts of our nation’s history, but we have to be big enough to address them. And maybe you can’t fix a wrong that was committed 200 years ago or a hundred years ago, but you can at the very least acknowledge them and try to do better.
Same with George Floyd, you know, with the protests that happened last year. I learned so much from my staff, the young Millennials that are my staff members, and especially my staff who are people of color. They were out on the front lines, many of them, and out, you know, on the marches and they were taking time off to go do that, and I supported them and I said, listen, teach me to help you; in the meantime, write your name and that you’re Duckworth staff on your arm in a Sharpie, so if you get arrested – (laughs) – they’ll call me. I went into mom mode with my staff. I’m like, write your name in Sharpie on your arm and my phone number; you understand? So if you’re unconscious, they’ll call and they’ll get me. (Laughs.) But we’re a big enough space for all of this to happen and we lurch forward. It’s not smooth. It’s not like, you know, fairy dust. Every time we gain anything in this country, it’s come out of turmoil; it’s come out of struggle and strife, and we – hopefully we will get to a better place.
Yeah, we’re really divided as a nation and it’s been – it’s touched my love and my belief in America and our democracy many, many times, but I start every day and I go into that Senate chamber and I look at the folks who claim that January 6 didn’t happen, even though they cowered behind the protection of our heroic Capitol Police, I’m going to assume that you love this country and let’s find a way to work on this together. Again, I take it down to steps: Let’s find one thing we can work together
Ms. Easton: Inspiring words. Speaking of the Senate chamber, I am told I have to let you go vote or I’m going to get in trouble. (Laughter.) So thank you so much, Senator. I know you’ve got to rush off. Thank you. You’re truly an inspiration to all of us. We need more like you.
Sen. Duckworth: Thank you. Be well, everyone.
Ms. Easton: Take care. Bye-bye.
Sen. Duckworth: Bye-bye.