Marine war veteran and Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton began to build a platform for a potential run in the 2020 presidential election Tuesday by arguing that the United States needs to spend more on cyber technology and artificial intelligence and less on aircraft carriers and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Moulton, a Democrat, joined the Marine Corps in June 2001 and led troops as an infantry officer during his four tours in Iraq, earning the Bronze Star with "V" device in the 2004 Battle of Najaf. The 40-year-old lawmaker has served in the House of Representatives since 2015, sits on the House Armed Services Committee and is the top Democrat on the Oversight and Investigations Committee.
"The reason I got into politics goes back to my time in the Marine Corps," the former captain told an audience Tuesday at the Brookings Institution. "I realized that I loved service ... and I enjoyed going to work every single day to serve our country even in the midst of a war I disagreed with. And fundamentally, that is what motivated me to go back into public service and become a congressman."
Now, Moulton is considering becoming a candidate in the 2020 presidential race to energize the country's approach to keeping pace with China and Russia's high-tech defense programs, as well as rebuild relationships with allies that the Trump administration threatens to destroy, he said.
"The [Trump] administration has alienated our allies, cowered to our key adversaries and abandoned our alliances," Moulton said. "In so doing, it has torn down the policy values that two generations of American leadership built.
"When your old house gets damaged by a bad renter or, in this case, by a terrible president, you don't just restore it to look like it was built in 1950. You take the opportunity to renovate it. You don't just rebuild, you build something new," he said.
Moulton, who has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in business and public policy from Harvard University, said America is at "serious risk of being entirely leapfrogged by China and Russian by new technology."
"China is not trying to compete with our 11 [aircraft]-carrier Navy by building 12 or 13 or 14 of their own," he said, adding that the U.S. should focus on the number "1,238."
"That is our best estimate for how many Chinese anti-carrier missiles you can buy for the price of one U.S. carrier," he explained.
Moulton then described a conversation with the Navy's chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson.
"I asked the CNO how many times had the Chinese attacked a U.S. carrier. [He responded] 'Never, sir,' " Moulton said. "How many times have the Chinese attacked us through the internet? 'Over the last 24 hours, sir?'
"The punch line is this: We have invested 16 times more in carriers than cyber. We need to re-examine that balance," he said.
Moulton said the U.S. also needs to ask the same questions "of our massive financial commitment to the F-35."
"I am more worried about how soon we can field the F-45," he said, referencing a notional future aircraft. "We need to dramatically up our investment in autonomous, hypersonic and cyber weapons to compete and win."
Moulton argued that the U.S. also needs to radically improve its foreign policy.
One way to do this is to take a new approach to arms control that ultimately "makes us stronger, giving us a strategic advantage," he said.
"The U.S. and Russia agree to comparable reductions in ICBMs. But [if] our missiles are more accurate and more reliable, then we have the advantage," Moulton said. "That is why I was such a strong advocate four years ago for a worldwide convention to limit the proliferation on drones. Back then, we were still far ahead of the rest of the world, and limiting them may have solidified that advantage."
The U.S. needs to start "thinking about arms control, not just with traditional weapons but with new weapons as well," he said. "Much sooner than later, we would be wise to consider what kinds of arms control over autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence will make us safer."
Moulton also argued that the U.S. needs to strengthen its relationships with NATO partners and should be asking if it makes sense to establish a Pacific NATO to counter China.
But he also said America would be stronger if more emphasis were placed on national service for young people.
"Being in the Marines taught me how much I enjoyed serving, and I think that if more young people had that experience, it would make us a better country, a stronger country, a more united country, a country that understands each other in these extremely divisive times," he said.
He does not believe in returning to a draft, Moulton said, adding that "we have had tremendous success having an all-volunteer military."
Instead, there are "tremendous opportunities for civilian service" through programs such as AmeriCorps, a voluntary civil society program supported by the federal government in which adults can serve their communities.
Moulton said he wants to see national service become an expectation.
"When you interview for a job in your thirties, one of the first questions that gets asked is, where did you serve," he said. "I think that is where we want to go with national service, and I am a huge proponent of it myself."
During the event at Brookings, Moulton briefly acknowledged that he is considering a 2020 campaign.
"Yes, I am looking at a presidential campaign. I think we have to make the argument to people that there are serious national security [issues] across the globe, and this has got be part of the debate," Moulton said.
"I will be the first to say we have extraordinary candidates who have already announced they are running," he added, naming the recent campaign launches of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota.
"There are amazing people out there who are running and contributing to this debate," he said. "If this is one of the things that I can add to the debate, then that is perhaps an argument for me to jump in."
Moulton acknowledged that the "political fight will be severe" in the 2020 race and that the country needs leaders with moral courage.
"Moral courage is often in short supply around here, but we need it to meet these tough challenges. Our troops deserve it, and our national security demands it," he said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.