Webb Says Decision About '16 Run Coming Soon

Webb Says Decision About '16 Run Coming Soon
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ARLINGTON, Va. -- With four Democrats in the presidential contest, James Webb still has not made up his mind. Does he want to run?

A few months ago, at the outset of his travels and speeches focused on a possible White House bid, Webb, a decorated Vietnam War-era Democrat, let the question hang. On Thursday, the former Virginia senator and Marine veteran said he’ll know “pretty soon.”

“We’re doing this very methodically,” he told RealClearPolitics after delivering a foreign policy talk at George Mason University that was itself heavy on method and light on new conclusions.

When Webb, 69, organized an exploratory committee and raised funds to run it, the question on his mind was, “Can you really put together a viable campaign, given the current financial structure in politics? That’s the thing we’re struggling to find out,” he told RCP. 

Prospective voters have been receptive, he added. And the number and nature of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination is not a factor in his decision, he said, slicing both hands through the air and shaking his head. 

Webb plans to return to Iowa June 14-17 and will be interviewed at length on C-SPAN June 7. His website is filled with references to his recent TV appearances, in which his views on world conflicts are sought. His tiny staff believes the former secretary of the Navy could count on support from military veterans if he decides to enter the race.

His presentation Thursday in a university classroom drew about 50 people, and he joked he understood Lincoln Chafee used the university setting Wednesday night to make some news, joining Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland in the Democratic race. 

But as his 2014 memoir, “I Heard My Country Calling,” recounts, Webb reveres leaders and leadership, embraces the camaraderie of shared public purpose and fair play, and is an accomplished loner.

Becoming president is less daunting a notion to Webb than the political rituals when seeking the presidency.

Glancing at a yellow paper with handwritten notes, Webb described a need for a “national security structure for the future.” The seven bullet points that followed were meaty enough for a university lecture, but not campaign-rally material.

When questioned by a man in the audience, Webb reminded his listeners he warned in 2002 that invading Iraq would empower Iran and create turmoil in the region. The Iraq war begun by President Bush and President Obama’s handling of the Arab spring combined to destabilize that part of the world, he said. 

“You don’t take out a hornet’s nest by sitting on it. We’re paying a price,” Webb added. 

The next president will inherit the threat of the Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria, so what is Webb’s inclination, if he were president?

“Define the national interest. The president knows better than I do; I don’t have access to the national intelligence,” he told RCP. “And No. 2, and I’ve said this before, this is going to have to be resolved eventually by the Sunni populations in Iraq and the region.” 

Journalists persisted. Does that mean he believes the United States should leave Iraq to the Iraqis? “I’m not going to sit here and tell you what I would do because I would want to get the information to make a decision, but the long-term solution is going to have to be regional,” he replied, bristling slightly. 

Asked the same question again, Webb paused to gather his patience and reformulated the same response, but with an example. 

“Just a couple of days ago you had ISIS operating almost on the Turkish border. Turkey has a large military, and a large Sunni population. Those countries have to accept responsibility for the burden of eliminating or reducing the threat,” he said.

Webb is particularly animated by security challenges posed by China in the South China Sea. East Asia is a part of the globe he knows well, watches closely and believes is essential to U.S. national security, economic and international interests.

“We are the key country in terms of stability” in the region, and that’s where the United States should focus its attentions, he told the audience. “We want to move forward in a positive way” with China, “but it is vitally in our national interest that we communicate strongly … It’s at a point that we have to be very firm with the Chinese government,” he said.

And if not, what could happen? Webb presented himself -- as Sanders and Chafee are doing as candidates -- as prescient about the mistakes of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But his warnings about China, Japan and what the Obama administration calls American interests in “freedom of navigation” were less pointed.

If he had been tempted to practice a Democratic primary debate strategy with a former secretary of state in mind, Webb pulled his punches Thursday.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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