photo by Flickr user Neon Tommy
We seldom host guest authors on this blog, but today I would like to make an exception.
In light of recent world events, we welcome President Barack Obama and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney - or, at least, the Obama and Romney who sat across from one another in the autumn of 2012 to debate questions of foreign policy.
As for the world events in question, two ongoing situations have made the news again this week, almost two years later. First, Ukraine released video footage yesterday of what it said were 10 captured Russian soldiers. If the claim is validated, the footage serves as evidence to back Ukraine’s claims about Russian incursions. The video was released the same day that Vladimir Putin landed in Minsk for talks with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. A day prior, Ukraine had accused Russia of sending an armored column across its border. From all appearances, this will mark the second time Russia has invaded Ukraine this year, after it annexed Crimea in March. The latest Russian incursion is of a piece with long-evident, but increasingly overt, disregard for European and American censure and for the rule of law, about which I have written before.
Meanwhile, a senior administration official told The Associated Press that Obama has authorized intelligence-gathering flights over Syria, designed to secure information about the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS). The Islamic State recently claimed responsibility for the murder of American journalist James Foley, calling his death retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. This is the only the latest in the history of the Syrian civil war, with unrest and violence that have stretched back at least to 2011, which saw the first major protests in Damascus and Daraa. The United Nations human rights office estimates that the civil war’s death toll stands at more than 191,000 confirmed dead.
I now yield the floor to our guest authors. All quotes below are directly from the October 22, 2012 presidential debate transcript.
First, Russia. Let’s let the president begin. Obama said:
Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.
Obama was referring to a CNN interview, in which Romney said Russia was “our number one geopolitical foe” (though he clarified that a nuclear Iran was a greater threat in the same interview, as well as in the debate). The interview was part of the political fallout from Obama caught speaking to then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, saying he would have “more flexibility” after the election.
Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he’ll get more backbone.
In the debate, the president also criticized Romney for “indicat[ing] that we shouldn’t be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it.” Romney pointed out that “[Russia] is back[ing] away from a nuclear proliferation treaty that we had with them.”
Obama had even more to say on the subject of Syria.
What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We’ve mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated. We have provided humanitarian assistance and we are helping the opposition organize, and we're particularly interested in making sure that we're mobilizing the moderate forces inside of Syria.
But ultimately, Syrians are going to have to determine their own future. And so everything we’re doing, we’re doing in consultation with our partners in the region, including Israel which obviously has a huge interest in seeing what happens in Syria; coordinating with Turkey and other countries in the region that have a great interest in this.
This - what we’re seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking, and that’s why we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition. But we also have to recognize that, you know, for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step, and we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.
And I am confident that Assad’s days are numbered. But what we can’t do is to simply suggest that, as Governor Romney at times has suggested, that giving heavy weapons, for example, to the Syrian opposition is a simple proposition that would lead us to be safer over the long term.
First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster. Secondly, Syria is an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now.
Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally, Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a - a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.
And so the right course for us, is working through our partners and with our own resources, to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a - in a form of - if not government, a form of […] council that can take the lead in Syria. And then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves. We do need to make sure that they don’t have arms that get into the - the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road. We need to make sure as well that we coordinate this effort with our allies, and particularly with - with Israel.
But the Saudis and the Qatari, and - and the Turks are all very concerned about this. They’re willing to work with us. We need to have a very effective leadership effort in Syria, making sure that the - the insurgent there are armed and that the insurgents that become armed, are people who will be the responsible parties. Recognize - I believe that Assad must go. I believe he will go. But I believe - we want to make sure that we have the relationships of friendship with the people that take his place, steps that in the years to come we see Syria as a - as a friend, and Syria as a responsible party in the Middle East.
This - this is a critical opportunity for America. And what I'm afraid of is we’ve watched over the past year or so, first the president saying, well we’ll let the U.N. deal with it. And Assad - excuse me, Kofi Annan came in and said we're going to try to have a ceasefire. That didn’t work. Then it went to the Russians and said, let’s see if you can do something. We should be playing the leadership role there, not on the ground with military.
Later, Romney added, “This is a time - this should have been a time for American leadership. We should have taken a leading role, not militarily, but a leading role organizationally, governmentally to bring together the parties; to find responsible parties.”
Obama replied that “We organized the Friends of Syria. We are mobilizing humanitarian support, and support for the opposition.” But Romney’s observation - “I see Syria with 30,000 civilians dead, Assad still in power” - is now inaccurate only in the number of causalities.
Only one of my two co-authors won the power to shape foreign policy. Two years later, Syria is caught in a brutal struggle between Assad and the Islamic State, while the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army - the people we like, more or less - is on the verge of irrelevance. Russia’s aggression is only becoming increasingly brazen.
Obama said in 2012, “America has to stand with democracy.” But he never took a stand at all, backing away from last year’s “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons and handing control of the situation to the same Russian president who is on the move in Ukraine again.
Does anybody have the phone number for the 1980s? We need to get our foreign policy back.