Governor Mitt Romney slammed President Obama’s leadership in Middle East Monday in a speech at Virginia Military Institute, and offered his most comprehensive foreign policy critique to date.
He called for a “change of course in the Middle East,” and urged the US to help other countries arm the Syrian rebels.
Russell East, a cadet at Virginia Military Institute watched Romney’s speech from the audience. He tells host Marco Werman the Republican nominee received an enthusiastic response at VMI.
Marc Lynch who directs the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University tells Werman that Romney failed to offer a sharp contrast with the foreign policies of President Obama, and didn’t grapple with the deep foreign policies differences within the GOP.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Less than a month before the election Mitt Romney laid out his vision today for an American foreign policy for the next four years. The Republican nominee blasted President Obama’s leadership in the Middle East in speech at the Virginia Military Institute, and Romney accused the President of abandoning America’s role as the global leader.
Mitt Romney: Our friends and allies across the globe don’t want less American leadership, they want more. More of our moral support. More of our security cooperation. More of our trade. More of our assistance in building free societies and thriving economies.
Werman: First, to get a sense of the mood during Romney’s talk at VMI, we turn to a cadet at the institute. Russell East was in the audience. He’s 22 years old and in his fourth and final year at VMI. Tell me first of all, Russell, what was the mood there as Romney addressed foreign policy today.
Russell East: The atmosphere was very high. There was a lot of high energy. Everybody’s pretty excited that he was coming down to VMI to speak. There was a lot of media there. The cadets were excited to hear what he had to say, and they really were just interested in knowing what was going to go on. You know, what his ideals were for the next few years.
Werman: Now foreign policy has not been Mitt Romney’s strong suit and, to be fair, the U.S. place in the rest of the world overall hasn’t been high on either candidate’s agenda during the campaign, but did you feel like you were listening to someone who is on top of the foreign policy game?
East: Well, in my opinion, sir, I believe so. I think he put it into plain terms. He set out a clear set of principles and standards that he thinks we need to adhere to to be successful in the Middle East. It sure sounded like he was headed in the right direction from where I was sitting, but nothing’s ever perfect. It’s going to take a lot of work either way.
Werman: Now Mitt Romney did speak in Virginia, and Virginia is leaning toward Romney it seems, and apparently you are something of a conservative yourself. You’ve leaned in that direction in the past. Is that correct?
East: Yes, sir, but I try to take every voting opportunity with a grain of salt. By that I mean that I try to make every decision with as much knowledge as I possibly can have. You know, I try to be an informed citizen whenever I make a decision. And Republican or Democrat, I really just want our country to be led by someone who I think can do the best job at it.
Werman: So, Russell East, the final Presidential debate in a couple of weeks is going to be about foreign policy. You’ll get a chance to hear both candidates speak about their vision for foreign policy. Are you at a point where you’re still open to what President Obama has to say? Or did you feel like you got pretty much what you wanted to hear today from Governor Romney.
East: Oh, I’m absolutely open. I would still like to hear both of them about what they have to say. I enjoyed what Governor Romney said today, but, again, we’ll see if that stays exactly the same or if he manipulates that at all in the next Presidential debate, and we’ll hear how President Obama responds to it all. So it’ll be a really interesting time for, you know, all the VMI cadets and pretty much everybody to hear about the two Presidential candidates have to say.
Werman: That was Russell East, a cadet at Virginia Military Institute. Marc Lynch also watched Romney’s speech, although not from the audience. Lynch directs the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He said he didn’t see much contrast between Governor Romney’s vision and the current policies of the Obama White House.
Marc Lynch: He’s adopting the same basic position on Iran, basically the same position on Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab Spring. Pretty much the only real difference, I think, lay in the way he characterized Al-Qaeda today, and he seems to see al-Qaeda as a rising threat and one which is increasingly threatening the United States across the region. And here I think the Obama administration is on much stronger ground, seeing this as a problem and one which has to be confronted but not being willing to surrender to the notion that suddenly the Arab Spring has given way to this unified Islamic challenge. I think Obama has been much better at seeing the ways, the complexities of what’s been happening in the Arab world. And I think it would be quite dangerous, actually, to go back to the old Bush administration thinking about Al-Qaeda representing the Islamic world and us being engaged in a grand clash of civilizations.
Werman: Right, well, let’s take a listen to Romney’s take on one of the most critical foreign policy issues of the day–Syria. Here’s what he had to say today.
Romney: In Syria I’ll work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values, and then ensure that they obtain the arms they need to defeat Asad’s tanks and helicopters and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Asad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously through our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran, rather than sitting on the sidelines.
Werman: So, Marc Lynch, arming the opposition, I mean, Obama in the White House had been pretty reticent to come out and say that. Isn’t that markedly different from what the White House is currently doing?
Lynch: The White House has been working closely trying to organize the Syrian opposition for quite some time, and they’ve been, I think, appropriately cautious about the trends within the opposition, Jihadists, groups that are primarily local warlords, people whoâ€¦we don’t know what they would do with the weapons once they had them, and I think we’re right to be cautious about that. I am glad that he refrained from calling for military intervention, which I think we would agree is likely to be a disaster.
Werman: So why do you think Mitt Romney is unpacking foreign policy now?
Lynch: I think that he wants to establish himself as a legitimate commander-in-chief, but he’s not really trying to bridge the hard questions and the divisions inside even the Republican party. So, for example, if you take something like democracy in Egypt or the Arab Spring in general, I think Republicans seriously disagree among themselves about whether that’s a good thing or a dangerous thing, whether this is about promoting freedom or about combating Islam. He’s not been able to bridge that gap and come out firmly and clearly to say what is it that he would actually do. Is he going to want to promote democracy and bring about transitions? From a policy perspective, it’s just very difficult to find points of difference with which we can really engage.
Werman: Marc Lynch directs the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. Thank you.
Lynch: Thank you.
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