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Foreign Policy Debate

Aired October 23, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

So President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have had their big foreign policy debate. And while the verdict was that President Obama, after four years of being commander in chief, won this one, the truth is that it was less a debate than two men marching in virtual lockstep on major issues of national security and global affairs.

Perhaps the biggest difference between them was on assessing the monumental shift in the Arab world, known as the Arab Spring. It did, in fact, take up most of the debate.

While the president acknowledged the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, he also defended the U.S. role in the liberation of Libya.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We were able to, without putting troops on the ground at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq, liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years; got rid of a despot who had killed Americans.

And as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi, marching and saying America is our friend. We stand with them. Now that represents the opportunity we have to take advantage of.


AMANPOUR: So while the president sees opportunity, Governor Romney painted a dark and dangerous picture of uprising across the continent, being hijacked by extremists.


FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: -- we've seen in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events. Of course we see in Syria 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in Libya, an attack apparently by, I think we know now, by terrorists of some kind .

We have in Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood president. And so what we're seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region.


AMANPOUR: As one commentator in the region told us afterwards, "I pray Arabs weren't watching that debate," for the depressing picture the two painted. And their vision of the Arab Spring is purely a security problem to be managed.

The fact is, though, the majority of Americans, left, right and center, share that pessimistic view. A Pew Research poll shows that 54 percent of Americans believe that stability is the most important goal in that region, while only 30 percent say democracy is, which is back to the bad, old days when success of American administrations took that view as well.

So how will the next U.S. president engage with the world, especially the Middle East? As a dangerous challenge to meet? Or an opportunity to be seized?

I asked two of the smartest policy experts I know.

Robert Kagan has advised both Governor Romney and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, though today he's wearing his other hat as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Also here, Jamie Rubin, who was assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration, and who's helped shape and communicate American foreign policy, and who's also my husband.

I asked them both about the major issues that were discussed as well as those that were left on the cutting room floor.


AMANPOUR: Gentlemen, thank you for joining me.

I think we all agree that this was a once-in-several-lifetimes chance, what's happening in the Arab world.

So how does the future President of the United States deal with it? How do you make sure that the liberals, the masses of the people who voted with their feet, get what they want and it doesn't fall into, you know, being hijacked by the minority extremists?

ROBERT KAGAN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, I mean, first of all, it's, unfortunately, even more complicated than that.

The liberals didn't win in Egypt; the liberals -- the grassroots in Egypt are the Muslim Brotherhood. They are the widest, most widely supported organization in the country. So we are going to have to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. And that makes a lot of people nervous. But we have no choice.

What we need to do is try to make sure that they continue -- they were elected democratically. We have to make sure they continue to support a democratic system.

The good news is, as the rulers of Egypt, they need tremendous amounts of support from the international community and the United States. Their economic situation is terrible. They don't want to preside over an economic disaster. That's not good for them.

And therefore they need IMF funding. They need American support. And they've been behaving that way. They have not abrogated the treaty with Israel and taken other measures that might have been upsetting.

So we have to use the opportunity that we have, when they need this support to say, yes, we will support you. But you must understand that what a democracy does is respect the rights of minorities, et cetera.

AMANPOUR: So their (inaudible) --



KAGAN: Right.

RUBIN: And I agree with everything Bob said. The problem is the candidates we saw on the stage last night were talking about America receding from --


AMANPOUR: Exactly. So then what is --

RUBIN: Ending the war in Iraq.

AMANPOUR: -- happen out there?

RUBIN: Ending the war in Afghanistan.

KAGAN: It was not on the Arab Spring, that's not what they were saying.

RUBIN: They said the same things that were said about Iraq and Afghanistan when we were at the height of our interest in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: So you're pessimistic about U.S. engagement?

RUBIN: I didn't seem to (ph) see Governor Romney put a dollar figure to those very good words he used about civil society and women's rights because he doesn't want to be caught spending a lot of money or resources overseas at a time --

AMANPOUR: So what does that mean to the reality and politics over the next four years, then?

RUBIN: If we don't -- if we don't make it a priority in our country to do the things that Governor Romney identified and that President Obama identified several months earlier -- same issues: digging down into their societies -- if we don't actually make it a national security priority -- assign dollars, assign leaders, give it priority and attention -- these will be fine notions, fine objectives, but they will never, never be policies.

AMANPOUR: Let's move from the revolutions that have happened and governments which have been elected to Syria.

Bob Schieffer, the moderator, asked Governor Romney, who had been more robust than President Obama, talking about providing the rebels, the uprising, with heavy weapons.

But when it came to a no-fly zone, this is what Governor Romney said.


FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't -- I don't want to have our military involved in Syria. I don't think there's a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage and I don't anticipate that in the future.


AMANPOUR: OK. So nobody wants boots on the ground. However, increasing voices overseas are now saying, listen, this policy of sitting on the sidelines simply hasn't worked. And the economists, the "Financial Times," not to mention prime minister of Turkey and of Qatar, have said we've got to do something more.

For instance, a no-fly zone -- what do you think the next one, two, three, four years, under a President Romney, would look like in Syria? It's at a vicious stalemate right now.

KAGAN: Well, I can't predict. And Governor Romney's been very consistent about not wanting to use military force in Syria. I happen to think we do need to take action and go for a no-fly zone. I think, by the way, that just going in that direction might have a catalytic effect on the Syrian military, which, I don't think, really feels like having dogfights in the air with American or other forces.

And it might just be the thing that tips Assad over.

I believe that, after this election is over, whoever is president is going to face that decision. And I think we'll ultimately -- we'll ultimately go in that direction. I just wish we didn't have to wait so long because we're in this election.

AMANPOUR: Do you agree? Whoever's president will ultimately go in that direction?

RUBIN: There's only two courses in Syria. One is a very, very long and bloody civil war ending in something like Beirut of the Lebanese days.

The other choice is a shorter civil war, in which the world, led by the United States, provides the forces fighting Assad the capabilities and the support they need, whether it's armaments, whether it's a no-fly zone, whether it's other steps. That will shorten the war.

I think both candidates last night signal that they're on the side of those moderates fighting Assad. But I didn't hear either of them say anything very convincing that they wanted to actually do what's necessary to shorten the war. They both talked about leadership, as we're used to our leaders doing. We're going to lead in the Middle East. We're going to lead.

But the current policy of status quo is what President Obama defended. And I would say that President -- Governor Romney's position was maybe status quo plus.

AMANPOUR: And it's not just Syria any more. It's drawn in Turkey. It's drawn in Lebanon. It's really the nightmare scenario playing out.

If this status quo does continue, what happens?

The status quo by the international communities, not to ramp up any intervention?

RUBIN: Well, I think the civil war will get worse, get more intense, begin to go neighborhood by neighborhood with massive destruction of life and, obviously, more and more refugee flows; and what we've seen, which is increasingly an opportunity for extremist Islamic groups, whether you call them Al Qaeda or not, to gain a greater foothold, because they have the ways to get the weapons and the support to fight. And that's what we've seen.

KAGAN: I wish this were an aberration, but you probably remember something called the Balkans.


KAGAN: Year after year after year of feckless international behavior, atrocities even greater than what we've seen in Syria. But at the end of the day, the international community wound up doing the right thing. And I believe that there is a kind of an ineluctable process here, where we're going to be shameful for many years -- but I hope not too many years -- and then are compelled to move in.

AMANPOUR: So that leads me to Iran. Now Governor Romney said that Iran and a nuclear Iran is the greatest threat facing the United States. President Obama said it was terrorism.

This is what Governor Romney said about Iran.


ROMNEY: We're four years closer to a nuclear Iran. We're four years closer to a nuclear Iran. And we should not have wasted these four years to the extent they've continued to be able to spin these centrifuges and get that much closer.


AMANPOUR: Are we four years closer to a nuclear Iran?

RUBIN: Well, sure, in the last four years, Iran has improved and enriched uranium, improved its nuclear capability. Whether they are intending to turn all that enriched uranium into a nuclear weapon is the question that the intelligence community, neither Bob nor I know for certain.

What we know is we're trying to stop that enrichment, slow it down. We haven't succeeded.

They argued last night of who would put the tougher sanctions on. Neither of them admitted that sanctions haven't changed one bit, the tougher, the stronger they are, not changed one bit the willingness of Iran to spin centrifuges, to enrich uranium and increase their capability.

Sanctions haven't worked, whether they're the tough version or the less-tough version or the more-tough version, and neither of them will admit that.


AMANPOUR: So what is going to work? We really need a solution to this. Is it bilateral talks? What is going to work to make sure that, as both said last night, that the optimum way to resolve it is by negotiation in a peaceful way, not by military means?

KAGAN: Well, look, what is going to work? I mean, if we had the answer, I'm sure that somebody in the last 12 years would have come up with --

AMANPOUR: Will it need bilateral negotiations between --


KAGAN: Well, bilateral negotiations --

AMANPOUR: -- the United States and Iran on this issue?

KAGAN: It could be, but I think bilateral negotiations are going to be productive only if Iran has already made the decision that they're willing to make some kind of deal.

Now I must say, just as we don't know a lot of things about their program, I don't think we know for sure that the sanctions pressure might eventually lead them to feel that their regime is at stake, because that's really all they care about, is the -- is the -- is whether the regime can survive.

If they ever reached a point where they thought that the regime was at stake, there might be movements within. I'm skeptical, but I still think it's something to be played out.

Then, of course, whether it's multilateral talks or bilateral talks doesn't matter. It's the intent of the Iranians at that point.

RUBIN: But neither candidate -- and let's be clear; it was a political debate and we know why this is true -- but neither of them signaled the kind of give-and-take that is necessary in a negotiation. If we want Iran to stop enrichment completely, as President Obama said he wanted last night we're going to have to give them something.

And it can't be the way both sides talk about it, which is they do everything we want, stop enrichment, export out all the enriched material. And after that's done, we'll reduce sanctions a little bit.

That negotiation is never going to get anywhere, no matter how broken the Iranian economy is or how fearing -- the idea that we're going to have a capitulated Iranian regime, which is the premise of U.S. policy, it seems to me that means they don't understand the Iranian revolution or the mullahs that are running the country.

They are never going to flat-out capitulate --

KAGAN: I don't think the -- I don't think the transfer deal that was offered last year, where we offered them, you know, pull some of their enriched uranium out and allow them to have enough -- I don't think that was a capitulation on their part. I think if they were reasonable and interested in the deal, they would have gone for that deal.

And, by the way, there's some evidence that some part of the Iranian regime had gone for that deal --


RUBIN: (Inaudible). That's the problem --

KAGAN: Well --

RUBIN: -- the consensus system of.

AMANPOUR: The question that was not asked last night, but the question that really matters to the people of this region, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians: is there any hope that either a President Romney or a President Obama, if he's reelected, will actually throw the weight and influence of the United States to getting a solution there?


KAGAN: Well, you know, Obama was lucky that he wasn't running against Obama in this election, because if Obama had been running against Obama, he would have said, "You haven't made any progress in the Middle East peace process for two years." We haven't been any (inaudible).

I mean, Romney made the point, but he didn't hammer on it. I mean, you do have to wonder if someone like President Obama, who came in, clearly, critiquing the Bush administration for not taking steps, was so unable to make the smallest progress that somehow, miraculously in January, with a new president, then all of a sudden, bang.

It was for -- not for lack of trying and lack of will. And I think people who say the two sides are not ready, either one of them, really, to make a deal, there's a lot of strength to that argument, it seems to me.

AMANPOUR: Two sides aren't ready or the U.S. needs to put in its leadership?

RUBIN: I think both are true. The two sides are rarely ready to make a deal. A few times, they acted without the United States back in 1993. But the period where we've seen progress since then has always required American leadership and the -- and the respect of both parties.

And I don't think that Governor Romney's view last night of saying that we'll do whatever Israel wants, essentially, that our view cannot ever differ in any way, in any shape or form, with the views of the Israeli government -- I acknowledge he didn't say it quite that way, but that's the impression that was left -- will lead us to a situation where we can promote Middle East peace.


AMANPOUR: And when we return, we'll focus on more of those questions that were not brought up in last night's debate. But before we go, another look at the presidential contenders.

If you think you're relieved that the debates are over, just look at the two candidates on the campaign trail today. We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program, where we are deconstructing last night's U.S. presidential debate. It was the final one. It was focused on foreign policy and when it came to Afghanistan, both candidates essentially were singing from the same hymnbook about pulling out most international forces by the end of 2014.

But what about 2015 and beyond, and what about all the other questions that weren't asked by the moderator? I asked Robert Kagan and Jamie Rubin.


AMANPOUR: Afghanistan: both candidates frankly sounded the same. They are heading for the exit. It's 2014. Are we going to leave troops in Afghanistan? Was that clear?

KAGAN: Well, it is clear. I mean, the Obama administration has already made clear that their plan is to leave 15,000 to 20,000 troops, or whatever they call counterterrorism purposes.

AMANPOUR: But they didn't manage to do it Iraq. Will he manage to get that, a deal in Afghanistan?

KAGAN: Well, that's a good question.

Now in Iraq, I think they didn't really care that much about getting the deal and that when the Iraqi president started playing hardball, I think people in the White House said, that's great; we'll just leave. And then I can run on saying I left.

In Afghanistan, which will blow up on the next president's watch if it's handled badly, I think they have more of a stake in making it work. So I think, yes, they would work harder to get a status of forces agreement in Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: So if there are forces left in Afghanistan, 10,000, 15,000, what are they there for? What are the benchmarks? I mean, are they there to protect Kabul from falling? Are they there to protect the Taliban from coming back? Are they there to defeat Al Qaeda? What is -- what is the reason?

RUBIN: What's interesting, we had a whole debate last night -- and maybe the world Taliban was used perhaps once. There was a time when defeating the Taliban was Americans' -- was an American goal in Afghanistan. That's gone.

President Obama explained why he has eliminated that goal. By agreeing with President Obama, Governor Romney, who previously had seemed to want to put the -- bring the fight to the Taliban, eliminated that goal as well.

So I think allowing the Taliban to come back to some large degree is now, if you believe the two candidates last night, American policy.

AMANPOUR: Oh, it's a tragedy.

What about Pakistan, building nuclear weapons faster than any other country? Somebody said that they would have, I think it was Governor Romney, they'd have as many nuclear weapons as England did, however many that is.

Pakistan is literally battling for its soul right now. Did either candidate have any good way of shoring up Pakistan and making sure that, you know, the policy of the U.S. and the region is implemented?

KAGAN: I think that -- I have to give Governor Romney credit for the way he answered the Pakistan question, because it's very easy to say, especially in the United States, you know, they're behaving terribly; they've done this; they had Osama bin Laden. Let's just -- let's just cut them off and cut -- and call it a day.

You know, I -- if you talk to any American expert on Pakistan, inside the government, outside the government, their answer is, you know, that'll feel good on day one. And then on day two, you're still dealing with the fact that Pakistan has 100 nuclear weapons and is in the state it's in. It doesn't do us any good.

And Romney, I think, to his credit, didn't give the easy answer, said there is no divorce from Pakistan. Now if you're asking me now how do we fix Pakistan, I'm going to be honest with you and tell you I do not have an answer to that problem. But we can't walk away from it.

AMANPOUR: What do you think is the most important issue facing the United States over the next four years?

Foreign policy?

RUBIN: The most important issue facing the United States, I think, fairly stated, we know what we need to do in -- with Russia, with China, with Afghanistan, Pakistan.

The big issue is that region called the greater Middle East and all of the problems and dangers, whether they're terrorism, extremism, nuclear weapons in the hands of an Iranian government. That's where the world's attention needs to be.

And so far it doesn't seem like the world is united in any form of strategy for that part of the world that will work.

But I would like to add that I agree that, in this case, on Pakistan, Governor Romney took the harder course. The easy course would be to bash the Pakistani government. And the harder course is to explain why we need to be moderate and work with them diplomatically, despite the frustrating policy.

KAGAN: The most important issue is our ability to continue playing the role we've been playing for the last 60 years, and that is going to require that we get our house in order here at home. Now Obama treats that as a tradeoff sometimes. We're either nation building abroad or we're nation building at home.

We have to be able to both because the world is not going to sit around and wait for us to get our act together. But we do need to address our financial crisis and our economic problems because that is the confidence that -- that's what gives confidence to play the role that we need to play (inaudible).


RUBIN: In a funny way that's why, despite the fact that our -- us foreign policy types hate to see the issue, we're turned to domestic policy last night, domestic policy is foreign policy. Without the economic revival that we need, we are not going to have the strength to do any of the things that Bob and I talked about or would like to see happen.

After the Iraq war, the financial crisis, the economic troubles, let's face it: America's ability to be what President Obama called the indispensable nation has been put in jeopardy. And to be the indispensable nation, we need both. We need a strong at-home and a strength abroad.

AMANPOUR: Was it a mistake not to mention the Eurozone last night? If you're talking about America's economic health, did it -- I mean, were you surprised that it didn't come up?

KAGAN: Well, there was two things about. One is, in a way, I'm not surprised. We don't have an answer to the Eurozone crisis. We certainly don't have a huge cash barrel to throw into Europe and help them with their problems (inaudible) --


AMANPOUR: But you've got headwinds from there, they always say.

KAGAN: -- that it's going to affect us is undeniable.

I do find it interesting, as you may as well, that Europe as a subject in American foreign policy discussions has fallen to fifth, sixth, seventh place. I think it's very unfortunate but it's just not a topic that anyone feels is necessary to discuss.

RUBIN: And yet, when there's time to do something, whether it's the war in Libya, whether it's sanctions against Iran --

KAGAN: Or something we may have to do in Syria.

RUBIN: -- or something else, who are we going to call?

AMANPOUR: The Eurozone.

RUBIN: Without a doubt, it's going to be France and Britain and possibly Germany. And that's the irony.

AMANPOUR: Jamie Rubin, Bob Kagan, thank you very much.


AMANPOUR: So we've heard what both candidates may or may not do as president. And when we come back, a hopeful sign. The Arab Spring has spawned a new cottage industry: the writings of constitutions.

Since America's was the first and most enduring such document, you might guess that it remains the gold standard for those new democracies. But guess again.



AMANPOUR: And a final thought, a cause for hope. The constitutional fervor that has gripped emerging democracies, like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. But imagine a world where the U.S. Constitution is not the shining example that those countries will follow. For 200 years, it was, ever since that Constitutional Convention back in Philadelphia.

But today, according to legal scholars, the constitutions of the world's newer democracies are become less like America's, and that's because of what the Founding Fathers said and didn't say. For instance, a constitution that forbids the establishment of a state religion won't appeal to a nation that wants Islam as part of its law.

And the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recently advised Egyptians to look at such countries as South Africa and Canada, because the United States Constitution failed to grant equal rights to women.

Does America still have a part to play? If so, it is surely this, to live up to the promise of its own words, all 4,543 of them, that begin with the three most important words of all: "We, the people."

That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.