POMED Notes: “The Obama and Romney Foreign Policy Agendas: A Discussion with the Candidates’ Leading Advisers”
On Wednesday, the Brookings Institution held an event entitled “The Obama and Romney Foreign Policy Agendas: A Discussion with the Candidates’ Leading Advisers” in which Michèle Flournoy, co-chair of the National Security Advisory Committee for Obama for America, and Rich Williamson, senior adviser for foreign and defense policy for Romney for President, Inc., discussed the respective presidential candidates’ foreign policies. Martin Indyk, vice president and director of foreign policy at Brookings, introduced the speakers and Marvin Kalb, a guest scholar at Brookings, moderated.
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Moderator Marvin Kalb began the conversation with the topic of Iran. In the past, Governor Romney was critical of President Obama’s Iran policy, suggesting the president was being too weak with Tehran, or, not being sufficiently proactive. “Would Romney stop negotiating with Iran?” Kalb asked.
At the beginning of his term in office, Rich Williamson replied, Obama traveled to Israel and claimed that Iran was a significant threat. Now, however, three and a half years later, “Iran is closer to having nuclear weapons than it was before.” So clearly, Williamson claimed, the current policy isn’t working. Iran isn’t afraid of the United States and doesn’t take the “threat of force” seriously. A president Romney would demand a suspension of all enrichment and be willing to use a military option to enforce that.
Michèle Flournoy countered, insisting that Obama “doesn’t bluff” and that military options have never been taken off the table in the context of Iran. However, the administration went through a “period of engagement” in order to create an environment conducive to international cooperation. Today, Flournoy said, Iran is under the strongest sanctions ever imposed on a country. In terms of a timeline, the administration believes that sanctions should be given at least another year to work before seriously considering military strikes.
Marvin Kalb asked the panel to address the ongoing conflict in Syria, particularly the possibility of U.S. military intervention and the arming of the Free Syrian Army. Michèle Flournoy asserted that the topic of military intervention had been discussed extensively in the context of securing the Assad regime’s chemical weapons and that contingency plans were developed in concert with key regional allies. Rich Williamson said that Governor Romney was against the creation of safe zones in Syria but in favor of arming “moderate factions” of the Syrian opposition. Flournoy added that the United States has helped to “develop cohesion” in the opposition and provided humanitarian assistance “for many months.”
On Israel, Marvin Kalb noted that the Obama administration has received some criticism and asked “Should Obama have gone to Jerusalem after giving his speech in Cairo?”
Flournoy stated that most of the criticisms leveled at Obama regarding Israel were rooted in “political” issues, as opposed to facts. Security assistance to Israel is at its highest level and the U.S. has defended Israel by vetoing Palestinian resolutions at the United Nations and helped create Israel’s Iron Dome defense systems, Flournoy noted. Rich Williamson said, in order to further the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, the next president will have to commit to respectful dialogue, never going public on positions before negotiations and avoiding demanding an “instant solution.”
Flournoy and Williamson generally agreed on how the United States should go about approaching Pakistan; both believe that the U.S. should be concerned about the fragility of Pakistan’s domestic political situation. Of top priority should be a continued support of efforts to secure Pakistani nuclear weapons. Williamson added that Governor Romney was considering placing conditions on Pakistan’s aid, though he did not specify what those conditions would be.
Flournoy offered the new START agreement as an example of the successes of the “relationship reset” between Russia and the United States. Flournoy also asserted that approaching Russia as a “geopolitical foe” would be a mistake and cited negotiations resulting in the turning back of weapons destined for Syria as evidence of that. Williamson warned of Russia’s “authoritarian drift” and said that “Putin knows what he’s doing” with regard to new laws suppressing the freedom of NGOs. Williamson also said that “sometimes when something is bad you have to call it that” and claimed that the act of President Reagan calling the USSR an “evil empire” directly contributed to progress on nuclear arms reduction.
In campaign speeches, Romney has been critical of alleged leaks from the administration. Flournoy insisted, however, that no one was more upset than President Obama about the leaks. In fact, she said, two prosecutors had been appointed to investigate the leaks and hold whoever was responsible accountable, no matter where the investigation led. When Flournoy tried to imply that the leaks could have come from outside the U.S. government, Rich immediately fired back, saying “These leaks didn’t come from Israel and you know it.”
Finally, the discussion wrapped up on the topic of defense spending. President Obama worked on a bipartisan plan to roll back defense budget increases by $487 billion dollars over the next 10 years in order to tackle the deficit. Governor Romney, however, plans on increasing the defense budget and the size of the U.S. Navy. When asked how Romney planned on dealing with the national debt and instituting tax cuts while increasing defense spending, Williamson was short on answers. After being pressed for an answer repeatedly, Williamson suggested that moderator Marvin Kalb talk to a Romney economics advisor for specifics.