Their résumés are unlike those of any of their soon-to-be colleagues: one from SEAL Team Six; one a member of the team that captured Saddam Hussein; and one who worked undercover for the CIA in some of the world’s most dangerous places.
Montana’s Ryan Zinke, Oklahoma’s Steve Russell, and Texas’s Will Hurd will soon be freshmen members of Congress, but their credentials will probably separate them from their peers. This trio of Republicans, each with his own unique special-operations background, expect to use their experience in national security when they arrive on Capitol Hill next month to help reverse what they see as the country’s declining standing in the world.
“We’re going to look to move the ball up the field,” Zinke told National Review Online, referring to advancing policies that keep the country safe both abroad and at home.
Zinke knows what that’s like. A third-generation Montanan, Zinke, 53, attended the University of Oregon on a football scholarship, racking up multiple accolades as an offensive lineman. After college, he embarked on a 23-year career as a Navy SEAL, during which he was awarded two Bronze Stars for combat. He served two three-year stints as a commander at SEAL Team Six and performed duties in Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific. He hesitates to share details of his time with the SEALs, whose operations are highly guarded, and calls the Obama White House’s habit of leaking information about their missions, such as in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, an example of the administration’s national-security failings.
Overall, Zinke blames President Obama and his team for involving themselves too much in military decisions — a complaint registered by his former defense secretaries as well. As a result, the military and its missions are put at risk when officials don’t trust the servicemen and women in the field to make these decisions, he says. For example, the White House’s ISIS strategy, “by every estimation, is failing” because of the president’s controlling approach, such as (reportedly) insisting on signing off personally on all strikes. Zinke expects the U.S. to be in the same position in three years unless it changes course. This approach is not only affecting how the military operates, but other areas as well.
“The micromanagement in the military is no different than the micromanagement of any industry in this country under this administration,” he says.
Russell, 51, whom Zinke already calls a friend, also says the country’s position on the world stage has declined on the president’s watch. “Our president, in an effort to end two wars, has us in five now,” he says, adding Syria, Libya, and Ukraine to the list that already included Afghanistan and Iraq. This is part of what inspired him to run.
Before returning home to Oklahoma in 2006 and starting a rifle-manufacturing company, Russell spent 21 years in the Army. While serving in Iraq, he led a unit that was part of the team that captured Saddam Hussein. That experience was the subject of his 2008 memoir, We Got Him! A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam Hussein, which earned national media attention on Fox News, on CNN and in Time magazine.
Contrary to public perception, he says, “the capture of Saddam was not a single evening’s event — it was a six-month manhunt. I don’t claim to be the only unit involved or the one that pulled Saddam out of the hole, but I was one of the key leaders.”
Asked to give the president’s foreign policy a grade, Russell is quick with an answer: F. Russell says polls show most Americans feel the same way.
Among Russell’s biggest concerns are proposals to shrink the military to pre–World War II levels. He says cutbacks in training and the loss of experienced personnel will further reduce the country’s capacity to respond to threats. “When you cut them, they’re gone — you don’t get them back,” he says.
Meanwhile, as a former clandestine officer for the Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hurd brings a background to Capitol Hill unlike that of any other of his soon-to-be colleagues. He describes himself as “the guy in the back alleys at 4 a.m.,” and it was that sort of experience that earned the support of Robert Gates, John Bolton, and Lieutenant Colonel Allen West on the campaign trail. It was during his time at the CIA – in particular, during briefings with lawmakers – that he realized there was a knowledge gap about security issues on Capitol Hill. This prompted him to jump into the congressional race, in which he knocked off a Democratic incumbent.
Zinke and Russell worry that the dwindling number of congressmen with experience in the military, or national security more broadly, is having an effect. “You want to know why we’re making draconian foreign-policy recommendations and defense recommendations?” Russell says. “One of the biggest concerns is that we have one of the lowest representations of veterans in Congress in decades — we see an even smaller percent of combat veterans.” Zinke echoes Russell. He says that the voices of veterans aren’t “being heard in strong enough numbers” and hopes that, through his presence, they will have “reinforcement” in the years to come.
But for now, this trio is focused on the beginning of the 114th Congress next month. Although it may not be the highest of bars, given the body’s record-low approval, or the toughest challenge they’ve faced in their careers, Zinke says he’s “an optimist” when he looks at the incoming Congress. Republicans will have opportunities to pass meaningful legislation now that the party controls both chambers. The key element will be making sure President Obama doesn’t veto the bills, which will be harder for him to do if they receive Democratic support. In some cases, Zinke is even confident that Congress will have the votes to override a presidential veto if need be. All that will require a results-oriented approach of collaborating and coordinating with different teams, which he, Russell, and Hurd all possess and have successfully employed thanks to their service and training.
“We’ve been trained to solve problems,” he says. “What a sign of relief that is for America.”
“I’ve done it in life-or-death situations,” Russell adds. “I can only imagine we can do it a little better in our government.”
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.