Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, visited The Heritage Foundation to talk about Thursday’s release of the 2019 Index of U.S. Military Strength. Prior to her speech, Ernst spoke to Daily Signal Editor-in-Chief Rob Bluey about the military, Syria, trade, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Bluey: The U.S. Index of Military Strength is an assessment of how our military is doing. It shows some gains that we’ve made under the Trump administration, but also some areas of improvement. What are your priorities, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, for our military?

Ernst: Well, overall, I think everyone that sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee has the same goal, and that’s to make sure that we are manning, training, and equipping our service members to the fullest extent possible, so we want a strong military. That’s very top line.

But as far as drilling down to actual priorities, making sure that we’re able to meet or exceed those near-peer threats, and make sure that we are also combating other types of threats, like terrorist or non-state actors.

Bluey: You yourself spent 23 years in the U.S. Army. You’re the first female combat veteran to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Based on your own personal experience, what kind of perspective does that give you as a member of the Senate?

Ernst: Well, a very unique perspective, I think, when you compare to other members that have not served—23 years between the Army Reserves and the Iowa Army National Guard, serving as a citizen soldier and, of course, during a time of war deployed overseas.

Actually wearing those boots, being a leader on those transportation missions through Iraq, really gives you an at-the-ground experience that many of our other members of the Senate will never experience.

Understanding the hardships that our men and women in service go through, I think, is extremely important. Getting a look at the operational level, the tactical level, is very important, too. We make a lot of top-line decisions in the Senate that affect our military members. Understanding how they trickle down to the actual sailor, or soldier, or Marine, I think that’s really important.

Bluey: I know that is a big focus of yours, looking out for the troops and veterans. Why is it so important for our country to have a strong military, and how does this Index of Military Strength that The Heritage Foundation creates help achieve that?

Ernst: Well, it is important that we focus on our men and women in service because without a strong military, what do we have? We have a nation that can’t defend itself. We have a nation that can’t project its values and ideals around the world.

We rely very heavily on that strength, and I love Ronald Reagan, President Reagan, for the fact that he focused on peace through strength. It’s a deterrent. We need a strong military.

Heritage, when they come out with their Index of Military Strength, I pay attention to that. I think it’s very important because we have a lot of very smart people involved in sorting through a lot of the information, our appropriations bills, our authorizations in the Senate, and they are determining if we are able to meet our goals as a nation in deterring those threats. I think it’s a brilliant thing to do every year. We all should pay attention to the Index of Military Strength.

Bluey: Thank you for that. One of the hot spots that you’ve been focused on recently is Syria. I know you recently wrote Defense Secretary James Mattis about the U.S. situation in Syria. What is on top of your mind when it comes to that particular country and that region of the world?

Ernst: Well, again, we have an AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] that is about 17 years old or so, and does it include the types of actions that we are seeing in Syria?

Ambassador [John] Bolton had told everyone that we intend to keep troops in Syria as long as we have Iranian threat there. But is that part of our AUMF? I don’t know that it is. We need to have that open, honest discussion with the secretary of defense and really see what is the reasoning for keeping American troops there.

The original goal to have those troops there was to combat terrorism. That is covered under the AUMF. Pushing back, maybe, against an Iranian influence, that we maybe need to have a discussion about.

Bluey: Shifting topics, we just recently saw the text of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement. I know you’ve said positive things, what it means for Iowa. A lot to go through, obviously, but what are some of your initial reactions?

Ernst: There is, and of course, I do focus heavily on agriculture, and NAFTA for agriculture was very good, and so our guidance to the president was, “As you’re negotiating through these trade deals, make sure that you keep agriculture in mind,” and he did.

The U.S. trade rep, the president, they did a great job in maintaining a presence with agriculture, but it goes even further now because with Canada we’ve had trouble getting poultry, eggs, dairy products into the country, and now we have gained new access points into Canada with those products.

Bluey: We’ll certainly be following it closely as the Congress takes its next step. I can’t let you go without asking about what everybody’s focused on in the Senate, and that’s obviously the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Your colleague from Iowa, Chuck Grassley, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has been in the spotlight. I want to ask you about, as somebody that you serve with, his leadership of that committee and how he has handled that situation.

Ernst: Senator Chuck Grassley is an amazing leader, bottom line, amazing leader. The fact that he is chairing the Judiciary at such a contentious time I think is a benefit to the United States Senate because he is such a calm, reasonable, caring, thoughtful leader.

We’ve seen that through the confirmation process, not only through the initial hearings of Judge Kavanaugh in front of the committee, but then the follow-on hearings that he brought up as well when we had Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford that came forward with some accusations.

He allowed her the opportunity to come in and provide testimony and allowed the judge to be able to rebut some of those accusations as well. He’s done a very thorough and thoughtful review of all of the information. I’m very, very proud of him, and I’m so glad that he is leading the Judiciary Committee.

Bluey: You’ve stated your support for Judge Kavanaugh. Why do you believe that he should be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Ernst: Well, he is an incredible jurist. We know that from his many, many opinions, his writings through the past number of years. He has served his country admirably. He served here in the D.C. Circuit Court. We know that he is well qualified. He’s more than well qualified to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

I do believe that there has been some trauma that Dr. Ford has experienced in her past, but it cannot be corroborated or tied to Brett Kavanaugh, so we have to look at the facts as presented, and the facts as presented is that there is no connection between the two.

Understanding that, we need to move forward, look at his wonderful career, look at the fact that he is an upstanding man in his community, and I think move forward to confirm him.

Again, I’ll be reviewing the information from that supplemental investigation, but if Dr. Ford’s story cannot be corroborated, I will be supporting Judge Kavanaugh.

Bluey: Senator Joni Ernst, thanks so much for joining The Daily Signal.

Ernst: Thank you. Thank you very much. You bet.