In a secretly recorded meeting with donors, the presidential candidate offered some surprising thoughts on the Middle East.
In a closed-door meeting with fundraisers, leaked video of which was just released, presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a number of unusually candid statements. It's hard to know the extent to which he was honestly speaking his mind on how he'd govern, taking campaign shots at Obama with a little less caution and forethought than he might have used in a public address, or simply telling some very rich donors what they wanted to hear. But it's worth looking at some of his more jarring statements on foreign policy, however accurately they do or do not reflect his actual views.
It's never hard to find cynics willing to question the motives of either the Israeli or Palestinian leaders engaged in the peace process. And it's never hard to find cause for cynicism in that long, frustrating, difficult process. But it's unsettling to see a would-be leader of U.S. foreign policy, which includes stewardship of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, so blithely and sweepingly dismiss an entire side. It would be surprising enough if Romney had suggested that, say, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has "no interest whatsoever in establishing peace," but to treat Palestinians as categorically opposed to peace is a rather extreme interpretation, one that would not seem to serve his potential role as mediator.
2) "The pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish. ... We have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."
As Tufts professor Dan Drezner put it at his Foreign Policy blog, "One of the best critiques that a GOP challenger can make of Barack Obama's administration is that he's made a hash of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. In this video, Romney pretty much revealed that he wouldn't be changing that policy anytime soon." But he would seem to bring some deep pessimism about the efficacy of even trying, which is easy to sympathize with, but doesn't suggest he'd do much to pressure either side to at least try for peace if he thinks it's hopeless.
3) "The other side of the West Bank, the other side of what would be this new Palestinian state would either be Syria at one point, or Jordan. And of course the Iranians would want to do through the West Bank exactly what they did through Lebanon, what they did near Gaza. Which is that the Iranians would want to bring missiles and armament into the West Bank and potentially threaten Israel."
At the risk of nitpicking, the West Bank does not border Syria; it borders Jordan, which is an American, not Iranian, ally. So it's not clear that Iran would have as easy a time moving weapons into the West Bank as into Lebanon. Still, Gaza doesn't border an Iranian ally either, and Gaza-based Hamas still derives real support from Iran. But the question is why Romney seems to assume it's so likely that Palestinians in the West Bank would be such natural allies of Iran. Whatever his reason for believing that an independent West Bank would ally with Iran, why has that same logic not led Jordan to do so? Why haven't the 2.7 million Palestinians living in Jordan, outside of the Israeli occupation, joined up with Iran and Syria?
4) "If I were Iran -- a crazed fanatic, I'd say let's get a little fissile material to Hezbollah, have them carry it to Chicago or some other place, and then if anything goes wrong, or America starts acting up, we'll just say, 'Guess what? Unless you stand down, why, we're going to let off a dirty bomb.' I mean this is where we have -- where America could be held up and blackmailed by Iran, by the mullahs, by crazy people."
This is an odd threat to speculate on for four reasons: (1) Post-2001 U.S. no-fly lists are so sensitive that even Nelson Mandela struggled to get off them, so it's hard to foresee Hezbollah members skating in and out of the U.S. (2) U.S. border security specifically screens for radioactive material, which is particularly easy to detect because it is ... radioactive. (3) Any bomb is dangerous, and that includes a bomb that would disperse poisonous radiation, but a "dirty bomb" is not the same thing you might have seen on 24. Uranium, the material Iran is using in its nascent program, "is simply not a good radioactive bomb material," as the Federation of American Scientists explained. That's not to say that dirty bombs are fine and dandy, but the difficulty of bringing nuclear material into the U.S. far exceeds the potential harm that material would add to a conventional explosion, which is enough of a threat on its own. (4) All of which is to say that there are plenty of reasons that the U.S. president should be and is highly concerned about Iran's nuclear program, but this somewhat outlandish scenario would be pretty far down the list.
5) "The president's foreign policy, in my opinion, is formed in part by a perception he has that his magnetism, and his charm, and his persuasiveness is so compelling that he can sit down with people like Putin and Chávez and Ahmadinejad, and that they'll find that we're such wonderful people that they'll go on with us, and they'll stop doing bad things."
President Obama has not met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and in fact has been remarkably severe particularly on the latter's regime, crippling it with ever-tightening economic sanctions and threat of military deterrence. It's true that Obama has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but their meeting this June was reported as "chilly" or "tense," not one of charms and persuasion. Even if Obama had met more cordially with Putin, as he has with previous Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, that's often a part of international diplomacy, and would have followed the example of Putin's greatest American charmer, President George W. Bush. This criticism by Romney is perhaps the least surprising -- politicians caricature their opponents all the time in campaigns -- but it doesn't suggest a great emphasis on the necessity of diplomacy on Romney's part.
1) "The Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace. ... I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel."
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.