Foreign Policy At Debate: Rhetoric Vs. Reality
President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Gov. Mitt Romney are getting ready to answer any and all possible questions about foreign policy for Monday night's debate, the last one before the Nov. 6 election.
Iran, Israeli-Palestinian talks and China are among likely topics for the debate — and also major issues awaiting the next president. Each case is a matter of building and maintaining alliances while applying pressure to protect U.S. interests.
In some areas, the heated rhetoric from the candidates on the stump and in the debate may look very different from the actual policies they'll pursue if elected.
Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, speaks with three experts about conflicts and countries that are likely to come up in Monday's presidential debate in Boca Raton Fla.
Stephen Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California, is president and CEO of the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy center.
Richard Perle is a defense policy adviser to many political leaders, most recently to the George W. Bush administration. He's a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, a center-right think tank.
Iran: Pump Up The Pressure?
On Iran, our panelists disagree about what the next step should be for the U.S. All agree that a military strike should be the last option, but Perle argues that the effectiveness of the current sanctions is running low. Harman says she hopes that after Monday's debate, the rhetoric on the issue will cool down, allowing the countries to negotiate in private.
Walt says preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon will be a priority for both candidates, regardless of who gets elected. He says he doesn't think Romney and Obama would handle the issue very differently.
"In particular, I don't think we're likely to see use of force any time in the next year or so," he says. "I think both presidents are likely to pursue a diplomatic course."
Perle disagrees: "I believe that Obama is pursuing a diplomatic solution that he is not going to achieve. He's no closer to it today than he was four years ago, but Iran is a great deal closer to having a nuclear weapon than it was four years ago.
"Romney strikes me as the sort of man, with his business background, who can recognize when a policy has failed and begin to develop alternative policies."
Perle argues the U.S. is reaching a limit to what the sanctions can achieve with Russia and China, both pushing back. Both countries are permanent, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council and oppose strong action against Iran.
"It's time to attempt some draconian sanctions without the approval of the United Nations. I believe we can do that, I think we could make life very much more difficult for the Iranians," Perle says. "And while I don't believe that will persuade this regime to change its desire to acquire nuclear weapons, it could destabilize the regime, and that seems to me the best way forward."
Perle says he still considers military action a last resort, but says he believes the Israelis may eventually get to a point where they can no longer wait and "will have a sufficient motivation to take some military action."
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat to his country.
Harman, the former Democratic congresswoman, says one could argue Iran is "already nuclear-capable, meaning it has the technologies, which if it decides ramp them up, will become a bomb, and it also has very advanced missile capability."
While the Iranians have the technology, U.S. intelligence agencies do not believe there is an active nuclear weapons program in Iran, Walt says.
"I do not believe they will try to cross that line because that might be the one circumstance where the United States or Israel would take military action," he says.
Walt says the U.S. should take military action off the table until Iran does have an active weapons program, and he suspects whoever takes office will first try a renewed diplomatic approach with the Islamic republic.
Harman says she hopes whatever moves the next president makes will happen in private, without as much discussion of the options in public and in the media. She also says keeping together an international coalition united against Iran developing nuclear weapons is key — even Russia and China have an interest in keeping Iran in check, she says.
"I would hope that the noise of Monday transitions to a much quieter, steadier approach after the election," she says.
Israeli-Palestinian Talks: Impossible And Necessary
Walt and Perle say they agree the climate is not conducive to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, though they disagree on how to spread the blame for the stalled efforts. Harman says the matter is so pressing that the U.S. should pursue a resolution regardless.
Walt says it's unlikely for either candidate, if elected, to make a big push for negotiations.
"It is not a promising time to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace because with all the other uncertainty in the region ... you would not expect anyone to be willing to make bold moves there," Walt says.
Harman says there should nevertheless be a major attempt, given what she calls the urgency of the situation — for everyone involved. She says she's been disappointed in the Obama administration and all governments in the region for bringing too many conditions to the table.
"All the people in the region would win if this could happen, and I do think that Israel's survival as a Jewish state is very dicey if this doesn't happen, and also because of other challenges from a neighborhood that's in turmoil," she says.
Perle says he doesn't think the next president would succeed in pushing an agreement.
"Some problems can't be solved — or at least they can't be solved under existing conditions," he says.
Perle says the Palestinians are holding up the process by not accepting the existence of a Jewish state.
"Until you begin to change the mentality, you're not going to see much of a change on the diplomatic surface," he says.
Walt disagrees, saying the Palestinians have been willing to negotiate but have meanwhile watched the Israeli government expand settlements in the West Bank.
"This is a case where if the United States were able to bring pressure to bear both sides — not just one — we might have some hope of getting a diplomatic solution," he says.
Tough On China, To An Extent
On China, the panelists mostly agree. As it grows as a world power, China has to be a friend of the U.S., they say. Tough talk is expected Monday, but whoever is elected will most likely continue to pursue an amicable relationship while pushing back on certain trade issues, as Obama has been doing.
"I think we have much more to gain than we have to lose by building our economic and diplomatic and cultural ties with China," Harman says. "This is just like Iran: There can be a very bad story, or hopefully we can find a way to make the story better."
She says helping with a treaty in the South China Sea could help our standing in the region, for example. Tensions have risen in sea, home to islands claimed by China, Vietnam, Philippines and other Asian nations.
"I just would hope that in this case, our narrative trumps just the exercise of military power," Harman says. "And people in the region see us as a friend, not as a potential antagonist."
Perle says while we shouldn't consider China an enemy, the U.S. can't ignore the problems it faces, namely intellectual property infringements and a centrally managed economy, which can hurt China's trade partners. Walt says the next president will take on those issues, but not in the way they've been talking about.
"In terms of the immediate four years, there will be a lot of talk on Monday about trading issues and fairness, but I think, again, whoever ends up being president will quickly understand that launching a trade war with China would be bad for business — bad for them, bad for us," he says. "So we may see a lot of hot rhetoric on Monday, but that's not really what's going to happen here."
But Walt says the candidates have a motivation for their rhetorically strong stances against China: U.S. voters in both parties are concerned with protecting American jobs, and it's a politically appealing point to make. He says that even if Romney were elected, he'll follow a similar path to the one Obama has already laid out.
"In fact, Obama has run a pretty hawkish foreign policy toward East Asia," Walt says, adding he doesn't expect much of a difference between the candidates on the approach.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
At this very moment, President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are cramming. They're getting ready to answer any and all possible questions about foreign policy for tomorrow night's debate. That's the last one before the election. Can you believe it? Barely two weeks away.
So today, we're going to hand over our cover story to that very issue: what the next president can expect on the foreign policy front over the next four years. So let's get right to it.
In Boston, we have Stephen Walt with us. He's a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the co-author of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." Stephen Walt, welcome to you.
STEPHEN WALT: Nice to be with you.
RAZ: Here in Washington, we have Jane Harman, former Democratic congresswoman from California. She's president and CEO of the Wilson Center. That's a nonpartisan policy center. Congresswoman, welcome.
JANE HARMAN: Thank you.
RAZ: Also in Washington is Richard Perle. He's a defense policy adviser to many political leaders, most recently to the George W. Bush administration. He's also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. That's a center-right think tank. Richard Perle, welcome to you.
RICHARD PERLE: Thank you.
RAZ: Let me begin with Iran because this, no doubt, will come up Monday night at the debate. And, Stephen Walt, let me start with you. Should preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon be a priority for the next president?
WALT: I think it will be for both of them no matter who gets elected. Romney has made much of that in the campaign. It was a big issue in the Republican primaries. And, of course, it's been a central focus of President Obama's foreign policy. So I don't expect to see much change there. I also suspect in the next term, there won't be that much difference between what Obama has done and what Romney would do if elected, in particular. I don't think we're likely to see the use of force any time in the next year or so. I think both presidents are likely to pursue a diplomatic course.
RAZ: Richard Perle, do you think that there could be major changes with respect to the approach of Iran, depending on which candidate is elected?
PERLE: I do. I believe that Obama is pursuing a diplomatic solution that he is not going to achieve. He's no closer to it today than he was four years ago, but Iran is a great deal closer to having a nuclear weapon than it was four years ago. Romney strikes me as the sort of man, with his business background, who can recognize when a policy has failed and begin to develop alternative policies.
RAZ: What are those alternatives?
PERLE: Well, while we have been increasing the sanctions, which, I think, is a good thing, we're pretty close to the limit, given the opposition of the Russians and, to a lesser degree, the Chinese. It's time to attempt some draconian sanctions without the approval of the United Nations. I believe we can do that. I think we could make life very much more difficult for the Iranians. And while I don't believe that will persuade this regime to change its desire to acquire nuclear weapons, it could destabilize the regime. And that seems, to me, the best way forward.
RAZ: It sounds like you wouldn't have a problem with a possible military strike.
PERLE: Well, it's a cliché to say that's a last resort, but obviously it is. The question is, will we get to the point where the Israelis, at least, if we're not ready to face up to it, ask themselves can we wait any longer, or must we accept Iran with nuclear weapons? And if and when that moment comes, I believe the Israelis will have sufficient motivation to take some military action.
RAZ: Well, let me go to you, Jane Harman. I mean, can the U.S. live within a nuclear-capable Iran? I mean, would that be such a bad thing?
HARMAN: Well, you could argue that Iran is already nuclear-capable, meaning it has the technologies, which, if it decides to ramp them up, will become a bomb. And it also has very advanced missile capability. But I was there at the APEC meeting earlier this year when President Obama said there is a red line for the United States.
Let me make a point that neither has - of the other panelists has made yet, which is Monday night, we're going to hear a lot of heated rhetoric because that's what these debates are. What I hope happens after this election, whichever person is elected president, is that there is a steady hand, there is an understanding of the fact that we have lots of bad options here and the goal is to pick the least bad, that a lot of what happens, happens in private.
I think airing all of our options in the newspaper and on the - even on NPR is not a good idea, and that we keep this international coalition together that we have carefully built, that most of which has the same view that we do of Iran with a nuclear bomb. I agree with Richard that outliers are Russia and China, but I think there is some convergence of interest there too.
So solving Iran is a hard project. Bombing Iran has very bad consequences. It still should be our last option. But I would hope that the noise of Monday transitions to a much quieter, steadier approach after the election.
RAZ: Stephen Walt, very briefly on this topic. Could - do you think the next president should consider the possibility of maybe living with an Iran that is - has a nuclear weapon?
WALT: Well, let's remember that U.S. intelligence agencies do not now believe Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, but as Jane said, they have the technology to get nuclear weapons if they want. But there's no sign that they're actively trying to pursue a weapon, and I do not believe they will try to cross that line because that might be the one circumstance where the United States or Israel would take military action.
Israel itself has no independent military option. And until we see Iran actively trying to get a nuclear weapon, the idea of using military force, I think, should be, in fact, off the table. The sanctions have put enormous pressure on them. And I believe what we'll see in the next administration, whether it's Romney or Obama, a renewed diplomatic offensive probably involving some bilateral talks because, I think, most sensible people in the United States understand that the military option is not a very attractive one for us.
RAZ: One of the thorniest issues for a modern president, of course, is Israel-Palestine. President Obama began his term by trying to tackle this issue. It backfired, and he's basically taken a hands-off approach. It is - Stephen Walt, to say the least, it is a political minefield with little political payoff. So what can the next president realistically do on the Israel-Palestine front? What do you think they can do and should do?
WALT: It is not a promising time to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace because with all the other uncertainty in the region - what's happening in Syria, what's happening in Egypt, even what's happening in Jordan - you would not expect anyone to be willing to make bold moves there. I don't think, therefore, you're likely to see a big push similar to the one that Obama made in the first year. I don't think that's going to happen under a Romney administration. And the result of which, the possibility of a two-state solution will recede further and further into the distance, which, I think, threatens Israel's long-term future, which is deeply tragic.
RAZ: I just read a statistic that...
HARMAN: Could I...
RAZ: I just read a statistic today that the population - the Israeli population on the West Bank of settlers has grown at a much, much faster rate than the overall Israeli population over the past five years. Jane Harman, did you want to chime in there?
HARMAN: I did. I think there's an urgency to resolving this problem. I think there's an urgency for Israel, there's an urgency for Palestine, there's an urgency for us. And frankly, as the clock ticks, the ability to protect Israel as a Jewish state declines because of the huge youth bulge in the Arab populations. It's unsustainable.
And I have been disappointed, frankly, in our administration and in the governments in both sides in the region in not making this a higher priority. They, you know, they always bring the baggage of we will talk, but this, that, and the other thing has to be resolved. I think the moment was better a year ago, perhaps, but it's good enough now.
And Bibi Netanyahu, if he's re-elected by a wide margin, which is what most people expect, could form a coalition in his government that would enable him to take some braver steps for peace. And I think the Palestinian leadership has to resolve this issue with Hamas, which is weakened in light of Syria, in particular. And maybe there's a unity government that could be formed there that would give up its bellicose conversation about Israel and become a partner for peace on that side.
I mean, all the people in the region would win if this could happen. And I do think that Israel's survival as a Jewish state is very dicey if this doesn't happen and also because of other challenges from a neighborhood that's in turmoil.
RAZ: Richard Perle, the clock is ticking down, as Jane Harman said. Why shouldn't the next president push a settlement, impose a final status agreement on these two sides?
PERLE: Well, I don't think he would succeed any more than the temptation to do that, which was hedged a bit from time to time as happened over many years. Some problems can't be solved, or at least they can't be solved under existing conditions. And the existing condition that seems to be the most important is the unwillingness of the Palestinians, with all the baggage they carry from the rest of the Arab world, to accept the existence of the Jewish state. They've never really done so.
And to this day, under the diplomatic surface, there continues a set of attitudes that I believe make peace impossible. For example, just a few days ago, a suicide bomber who had killed 21 people received the highest honor that could be bestowed by the Palestine Committee of Arab Lawyers. That attitude runs very deep, and it runs unopposed, largely. I have not heard this president or, for that matter, his predecessors say much about the chronic celebration of suicide bombers in the Palestinian territories. Until you begin to change the mentality, you're not going to see much of a change on the diplomatic surface.
RAZ: I want to give Stephen Walt the last word or two on this issue. Do you think that what Richard Perle has just talked about is a serious obstacle to come into a peace agreement?
WALT: Frankly, I think most of what Richard just said is nonsense. There's certainly attitudes within the Palestinian community that are rejectionist, but the Palestinian authority has said for over a decade now that it is eager to have a two-state solution. The problem is it's continuing to watch the Israeli government expand settlements throughout the West Bank and essentially gobble up what should be the territory of a Palestinian state in the future.
This is a case where if the United States were able to bring pressure to bear on both sides, not just one, we might have some hope of getting a diplomatic solution. But given that the United States is not willing to do that, I think we're going to see the situation that Jane Harman, I think, most fears - and correctly fears - namely, a two-state solution disappears as a possibility and Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state is imperiled largely because the United States was unable to act as a good friend to its various friends in the region - Israel, most of all.
RAZ: OK. Hold that thought, Stephen Walt. We'll have much more from you and Richard Perle and Jane Harman in a moment. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Before the break, we were talking about some of the foreign policy challenges the next president will face and some of the issues that might come up tomorrow night at the debate.
Now, obviously, we can't touch on every subject, but in our remaining time with Harvard's Stephen Walt, former House Intelligence Committee member Jane Harman of the Wilson Center and former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, let me ask about China. And I want to start with you, Jane Harman.
China is a quadrennial whipping boy. Every four years, you know, at least one presidential candidate says the other one is soft on China and that, you know, he's going to be the one to rebalance the relationship. And then they're elected and nothing really changes. Is it different this time? And should it be?
HARMAN: Well, I think the stakes are very high on this subject as well, and I think we have much more to gain than we have to lose by building our economic and diplomatic and cultural ties with China. And I think this is just like Iran. There can be a very bad story, or hopefully we can find a way to make the story better.
And there are huge issues with the South China Sea. If Congress would ratify Law of the Sea Treaty - I don't know how the others on this call feel about that - I think that would help our standing. We are doing more in the region. We have, quote, "pivoted." That wasn't the word in the policy we have. But we're putting more assets focused on Asia.
And I just would hope that in this case, our narrative trumps just the exercise of military power. And people in the region see us as a friend, not a potential antagonist.
RAZ: Richard Perle, tough talk on China on the campaign trail, but when it comes to governing, what does the next president face in our relationship with China?
PERLE: It's very difficult to predict how this is all going to unfold. I don't believe that we should regard China as an enemy or as a hostile power in the large sense. On the other hand, we have issues with the Chinese, and it's not a good idea to suppress our concerns about those issues in the hope that somehow that is going to lead to a better relationship.
For example, massive violations of intellectual property. This came up in the last debate; I expect it will come up again. A centrally managed economy with respect to a number of issues like currency and so forth, which is used in a predatory way to the detriment of China's trade partners. We need to sort out those issues because they're important to the United States.
RAZ: Stephen Walt, on China?
WALT: I agree with much of what has already been said. If China continues to rise in power, it's going to be a rival of the United States. I think that's virtually inevitable. How serious that rivalry is, how dangerous it is, we don't know yet.
I think that in terms of the immediate four years, there will be a lot of talk on Monday about trade issues and fairness, but I think, again, whoever ends up being president will quickly understand that launching a trade war with China would be bad for business - bad for them, bad for us. And so we may see a lot of hot rhetoric on Monday, but that's not really what's going to happen here.
The reason, however, is that if you look at the latest Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, the issue that got the most attention, that people said was the most important, was protecting jobs of American workers. Eighty-four percent of Republicans; 84 percent of Democrats. Bipartisan agreement on that. And that inevitably tempts presidential candidates or incumbents to talk a lot about these issues while they're on the campaign trail. So we're going to hear a lot about that on Monday.
But once either one of them is elected, I think they'll go back to trying to manage the relationship with China and do very much what Obama has already done: maintain the economic relationship as best we can, push them on issues like intellectual property rights, and gradually build up our diplomatic and military strength in the region to meet a challenge that may grow in the future.
In that sense, I don't think there's going to be much difference between Romney or Obama. And, in fact, Obama has run a pretty hawkish foreign policy towards East Asia.
RAZ: And we'll all be watching, of course, on Monday night to hear what the candidates have to say themselves. That was Stephen Walt. He's a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Stephen, thanks to you.
WALT: My pleasure.
RAZ: Thanks also to Jane Harman, former congresswoman from California and the president of the Wilson Center. Jane, thank you.
HARMAN: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: And Richard Perle, former defense policy adviser and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Thanks to you, Richard.
PERLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.