With one last time onstage with the president on Monday, GOP nominee Mitt Romney wasted no time in blasting Barack Obama and the White House for its failures in the Middle East.
Romney stood by his five major points in the third and final debate: what happened at the U.S. Consulate attack in Benghazi, how to handle the long-term problems of jihadists in the Middle East, how to handle a nuclear-craving Iran, how to defend Israel and what kind of assistance to provide in Syria.
Host Carmen Russell-Sluchansky spoke with Walid Phares, an adviser to U.S. Congress on Middle East issues and a senior adviser on foreign policy and national security to Romney, to discuss the issues brought up in the final debate.
The third and final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney was held yesterday. The focus of debate was foreign policy, though that sometimes went into domestic economics. Romney blasted the White House for its failures on the Middle East, for not supporting the Syrian rebels more and for taking a soft stand on Iran at the expense of the nation’s relationship with Israel. President Obama, for his part, accused Romney of “old cold-war thinking”, essentially saying the former Governor was not ready for foreign affairs prime time. To discuss the issues brought up in the debate, particularly with regards to Middle East, I have on the line Walid Phares, he’s advisor to the U.S. Congress on Middle East issues and author of “The Coming Revolution: Struggle to Freedom in the Middle East”, he’s also senior advisor on foreign policy and national security for Mitt Romney. Although when talking to us today, he’s not representing the Romney campaign. First of all, what did you think of debate? The Poll seemed to think that Barack Obama won, pretty decisively.
Well, of course, he has an advantage. It’s very important to understand that the Governor wanted to clash with the President on Benghazi, but he knew that would have been long discussion on tactical issues. And the President, of course, would have responded, basically, “I know better. Let’s go back to the documents.” So what the Governor wanted to do is to take advantage of these 90 minutes to go through his five major points regardless of the way it was discussed and regardless of the attacks by the President. First, to define that the major long-term problem in the region are the jihadists across the board. So he was going from one spot to another which prompted the President to tell him, “You’re all over the map!” Reality is that Governor has a map in his mind while the President didn’t want to talk about that. Second, as we saw, was Iran, not just a nuclear issue. Deciding with the people of Iran 2009 and how the President did not solve it was his third goal. And definitely there was a point of Israel and that was very clear. And forth, Syria. And as you said in your introduction, basically, Syria was probably the most important of all these points where the Governor scored by saying, “This is my plan. I would do it that way. What is your plan? And you’re in charge and that didn’t happen.” That’s basically the general summary, from my perspective of what happened last night.
Sounds like a good summary. Let’s go point by point. You did bring up Benghazi. Let’s talk about that. The murder of the Ambassador there – one of the things that Romney said in the prior debate – he accused the President for not calling it “an act of terror” for a couple of weeks. Of course, there was a lot of effort by the White House to clarify what it exactly was. How much does it really hurt? Especially, when we find out that Barack Obama did call it “an act of terror” the next day. And is this not just farcing things out in terms of what qualifies as an act of terror, even whether or not this was a spontaneous demonstration or, as the White House says, it more recently accepted that the act was preplanned?
First, there’s one little fact we need to clarify. I looked at the printed material, not just at what the President said the next day. He didn’t say, “This is an act of terror.” He said, “We will not allow terrorism again.” That meant, in general terms, a President who wanted to talk about Benghazi would have in the next few hours after knowing that there was an attack, appeared before the American public and said, “We have been attacked. This is terrorism! We’re investigating. And we want to know who’s behind it.” The problem, in my sense, is that the Obama administration has been banking so much on the killing of Ben Laden! It was such a big risk to say that al-Qaeda was on the path of decline! Then this attack comes. The American voter would ask the simple question, “How come you stated that al-Qaeda is going down and al-Qaeda is able to kill an Ambassador?” And more important, if I may say, is not just the attack by itself, it’s a fact that there was a denial of the existence of salafists militia in the administration, among analysts at the highest level! That’s the biggest problem! And it’s not just Libya, it’s also in Syria and now more and more in Jordan, elsewhere. The fact that administration is saying that the war on terror is going down explains how the Governor several times during the debate, “Our major problem is these jihadists who are spreading.” And I would say spreading in Africa, in Somalia, even in India and Russia. This is a world-wide issue the administration was not there to confirm.
But there were a number of things they agreed on, such as not sending military into Syria, but also using drone strikes at the very terrorists you’re talking about. What would you advise Mitt Romney to do differently than the President? Clearly it didn’t come out in the debate last night.
It’s true. The debate is only 90 minutes, each one had somewhere around 40. It seems to me that the goals of the President was to show that the Governor was weak on national security or misinformed so you had those jobs on aircraft carrier. That was unnecessary. But that’s how the President wanted to end up paining the Governor. The bottom line between these two is, as you mentioned, that there’re basic issues – the use of drones if we determine that there’re terrorist forces, the non-sending American troops now anywhere in the Middle East. But beyond the points of consensus you have the general direction. What is the general direction with regard of Iran? For Romney really to provoke a change doesn’t have to be with military means, for Syria making sure that there’s a protection for civil society, for the rest of the region making sure that minorities and women are protected. And then you have the platform of the President forcing Iran to come and negotiate, putting pressure on Syria and Assad. There’re major differences. And I think yesterday the American public saw it.
One of the things that Obama points to in an attempt to show that he is right that the war on terror has been successful, especially during the last 4 years, is the fact that there has not been any major strikes on homeland. Is this not helpful? I’m regularly reading about the U.S. military taking out one al-Qaeda leader or another either by drones or other methods. Is this not the evidence that the war on terror at least has been kept away from the homeland?
As you know, I’ve been following this for 30 years, but the jihadists’ movement, salafists’ movement uprising not just against the U.S., but against other nations. And in America there were attacks – Fort Hood attack, Arkansas shootings and about other 40-45 attempts. In my own visioning, attempts are attacks. But law enforcement and counter terrorism units were successful. What if they’re not successful one more time after Fort Hood? The way we measure the jihadists’ determination is their intention. And the other way is what factory is producing them, the ideology. This is, where I think, is a major difference, although not really clarified yesterday in the debate between the President who actually denies the use of those terms! Remember, Governor Romney used words like “jihadists”, “Islamists”, “fundamentalists”, “salafists”, like most leaders, including the Arab world. The President refused to do that. He didn’t mention one time other than “extremists”. So the difference between the two candidates is that Governor Romney sees good things in acting against the leadership of al-Qaeda, of course, but sees also that the President and the administration have been in denial of the existence of this ideology and the factory producing replacement to Ben Laden and others.
That’s got to be a very difficult thing for any nation to do, especially if you’re not intended to use military as much. Again, both candidates seem to be inclined to try to do, but they both talked about, for example, using education, using aid and positive ways trying to build up the level of income in those different places, different hot spots – basically, doing things to foster democracy in some way. Are you really saying that the President has failed on those particular points and that Mitt Romney would do better?
Absolutely! Actually, Governor Romney had his own book three years ago that mentioned the notions that the U.S. needs to create regional hubs to engage with civil society. He also endorsed my book “The Coming Revolution” which was the central thesis of supporting civil societies at encounter to the jihadists’ movement. But more important than that is the fact that President Obama’s idea of supporting these societies is to send them packages of foreign aid, as for Egypt, for example. But then not to identify which political forces are going to be receiving it! If we’re going to be sending 1.8 billion dollars to the Muslim Brotherhood and to their allies and salafists, they’re going to use it to build their own program. Governor Romney wants to send foreign aid, he’d love to increase it, if possible. But he wants to make sure that the people in those societies, should they be in government or in opposition, have the same values or comparable values – that’s a very consistent and important difference between both candidates.
Let’s take a look at Iran. You did mention that you’re feeling that the President failed to help foster exactly the things we were talking about in 2009 when there was an uprising against the regime there. There’s also principle of “red line” where Mitt Romney is looking for something of a point for Iran. Which point Iran would go over in terms of nuclearization, if you will? Mitt Romney was also saying that in the past, essentially, bombing Iran wouldn’t be off the table. The President seems disinclined to go with that “red line”, but at the same time has said specifically like yesterday that while he’s President, he would not let Iran obtain nuclear weapon. Obviously, I think most people on both sides agree generally that more democracy in Iran would be a good thing. But for Americans probably the idea of nuclear Iran is the most important. Is it not the case where they both agree that Iran shouldn’t have a nuclear weapon in the present?
The President basically wants to say, “We will not allow this regime to possess an operational nuclear weapon.” But between now and then, what his policy would be, at what point he would intervene – he really wanted to be at his own discretion. The reason here is because he still hopes and he has a lot of groups and advisers and researchers on Iran who with their literature convinced the administration that there’s a way to cut a deal with Ayatollah at some point in time, that if we put measure pressures on them, they would eventually come to negotiate. And that way Obama can say that they’ve been firm on the one hand, but on the other hand he was able to sit down with the Iranian regime and cut the deal over the North. That’s his hope. Reality on the ground – and that was what Governor Romney has been trying to say, although in a very simplified way because of lack of time, was, “You tried it for the last 4 years. But the national leadership of Iran was trying to outmaneuver us and move closer and closer to a nuclear weapon.” It didn’t reach the level of a nuclear weapon, but they’re moving closer and closer. Iranians have been developing sleet of missiles and by the time they reach the level of a nuclear weapon – then the missiles will be ready. So both of them don’t want to use military force, but they have different views on the intentions of the Iranian regime. And that’s I think is the major difference between the two doctrines.
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