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Q&A: Sen. Jack Reed addresses domestic, foreign policy issues

Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, sits down with The Herald to discuss environmental concerns, Syrian conflict

Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, came to campus Sunday to give a talk entitled “The Challenges of a Turbulent World” as part of the Watson Distinguished Speaker Series. Reed grew up in Cranston before earning a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point, a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

Prior to becoming a politician, Reed served in the United States Army, taught at West Point and worked as a private attorney. He was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1990 and became the Ocean State’s 46th U.S. Senator in 1996. He was re-elected in 2002, 2008 and 2014.

Before delivering his lecture, Reed sat down with The Herald to discuss issues on the state, domestic and international levels, including police brutality, the threat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and global economic forces.

Herald: In the past few months, some of your actions have addressed environmental concerns, such as your statement on President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and your vote against the blocking of the Clean Water Rule. Have environmental concerns always been a priority for you?

Reed: No, I think this has been a priority for me since I’ve been in public office. But I must say that Rhode Island has always been a very environmentally conscious community going way back to when I was a young man. Former Gov. John H. Chafee (P’75 GP’14 GP’17) had the Green Acres Program. He was a great conservationist. So was Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI). Stepping into Congress, these issues were very well-defined and very well-articulated by my predecessors.

Your work on the Appropriations Committee funded the Community-Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program, from which Providence received nearly $1.9 million to hire 15 new officers. Do you think Providence has been doing a better job than other cities with regards to the problem of police brutality within communities of color?

I think Providence has leaders who really care. Police Chief Hugh Clements, Jr. is constantly out there on the streets. Can they improve? Of course they can. But I just sense that the leadership is very attuned to what’s going on.

Being engaged with the community in many capacities helps a lot. And a lot of officers who can do community policing helps as well. It’s a feedback loop. Police communication with the neighborhood is important. Having the presence of police officers, not only in times of difficulty, but constantly — it helps develop that dialogue.

What is your opinion on recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale and Brown?

They underline the fact that we still have a ways to go in terms of unbiased enforcement of the law. It takes the community to recognize the sacrifices that the police are making, and it takes the police to recognize the individuals in the community and communicate with them and get their advice on how to proceed.

It is a constant effort. You can’t stop and sit back and say, “This community solved it and this hasn’t.” The biggest thing we can emphasize is the continuous dialogue. When this dialogue stops, when it becomes “us” versus “them” on either side and there’s no communication, then there’s usually going to be a problem that’s going to crop up somehow somewhere unexpectedly.

On Oct. 30 you made a statement supporting President Obama’s deployment of special operations forces to Syria to fight ISIS. Several local leaders have expressed interest in sheltering some Syrian refugees. Do you think the United States should be accepting more refugees from the Middle East as the conflict with ISIS continues to grow?

I think we can do that. The other factor is that there is an ability in the United States to have sponsors — individuals who would sponsor these people — and that is a further way we can ensure that people coming to these shores want refuge and nothing else.

We have communities in the state, like the Syrian Christian community, that would be supportive of this. Our vetting procedure would be very thorough. We are far enough away from the migration routes that we have the ability to do the research and analysis before these people are vetted. In the past, we have taken refugees from other places. In fact, they and their children have been powerful contributors to American society.

In light of the recent events in Paris and other parts of the world, what should be the United States’ next step in terms of dealing with the ISIS threat?

It should continue to build a strong international coalition, because that is something we have to have. We can’t take a unilateral approach to this issue. Also, we need to engage regional powers in a concerted effort to go after ISIS.

There are several lines that we have to pursue. We have to push them back from territory that they have taken. They tout themselves as different than Al Qaeda in the sense that they are creating a caliphate territory. So we have to push them back there. It means working closely with Iraqi forces and with Syrian forces that are moderate.

We also have to cut off ISIS financially, not only by financial regulation but also by taking down the oil infrastructure they use to sell to support their efforts. Then we have a big challenge in terms of defeating their information campaign. They have been very adroit at using information to intimidate, to cajole, to recruit.

This is a multipronged effort. It can’t be done by us alone. In fact, when it comes to forces on the ground, the local forces will ultimately be most effective. But we have to get them trained, engaged and focused.

How can we best protect American interests in Syria while not supporting extremist elements of the opposition movement against Bashar al-Assad?

It’s one of the real difficult challenges, because we are clearly committed and taking active overt action against ISIS wherever they are, and they happen to be in Syria. Working with Kurdish forces, we’ve had some moderate success in the northeast of Syria in pushing back on ISIS.

It gets much more complicated with forces fighting Assad. We are committed to his removal but through political and diplomatic means. The forces on the ground don’t draw the distinction between ISIS and Assad — they are just going after anyone they think is attacking them or attacking their communities.

This is one of the issues that has cast a very complicated shadow on our operations. The public reports have indicated that there are covert actions by the United States to help some of these rebels. One of the problems is sorting out the moderate rebels, which is a relative term, from the extreme groups who have in the past or continue to ally themselves with the original Al Qaeda elements. We definitely don’t want to empower them, but we have to find the moderate, responsible element. That’s very difficult because it’s a complicated issue on the ground.

Is the economic center of gravity shifting in the world away from the United States and Europe?

Of course, if you go back to the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and Europe were huge economic forces in the world. The Soviet Union was sort of stumbling along, not particularly good at central planning or producing consumer goods. China was still under the sway of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution and not an economic force.

So in effect, the United States had a much more significant and dominant role in the world economy. That’s changed. China is now, through its economic reforms, a very influential economic force in the world — not just in the Pacific.

Other parts of the world have become much more economically engaged. Technology has allowed entrepreneurship across a whole spectrum of places. You don’t have be in a big laboratory to do sophisticated research. You can be in a remote location with Internet and do research and develop a product or applications. There’s a huge shift.

There might not be an economic center of gravity any longer — it’s so dispersed. The relationship between the wages of those people who are adept in this information economy versus traditional workers in manufacturing and other industries is lagging, and that is partly due to changes in the economy. Compared to the ’60s and ’70s, it’s a different economic world.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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