RENO — Israel deserves better treatment than it received during the term of U.S. President Barack Obama, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told Israel Hayom in a special interview this week. "I would treat Israel like the friend and ally it is. We share not only common interests, but also common values."
"I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world," he said. "You don't criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes."
The former governor of Massachusetts vowed that if he is elected president in November, he will conduct his disagreements with Israel, should any arise, in private, out of the public eye. "If there were places where we disagree, I would hold these disagreements in private conversations, not in public forums," he declared.
The U.S. is currently consumed with its upcoming presidential elections. Americans must choose between Obama, whose approach and achievements are contentious, and Romney, who is considered a gifted businessman. The Wall Street Journal reported on its front page this week that Americans were experiencing a resurgence of anxiety about the economy, making it very difficult to predict the outcome of this election. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 60 percent of Americans feel that the nation is currently "on the wrong track" while only 32% feel that the U.S. is "headed in the right direction."
We met Romney behind the scenes at a convention center in Reno, Nevada, shortly after he stepped off the stage. He had just addressed the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars — a very important organization that boasts over 1.5 million members, all veterans of wars waged by the U.S. outside its borders. The organization represents 2 million potential votes, but it also possesses additional significance: It is a symbol of American values — patriotism, duty and a collective national memory.
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It is no wonder then that both Obama and his opponent Romney traveled all the way to Reno this week to report for duty before the veterans. After all, the president is the commander in chief; and should Romney replace him in the White House, he will immediately assume the role of commander in chief.
Reno is considered Las Vegas' younger sister. It is a small town, surrounded by barren mountains. It is known for hosting the annual National Championship Air Races every September, among other things. This little town saw an incumbent U.S. president and his presumptive opponent arriving at its airport during the course of one day. As we watched Air Force One land, we looked around and saw no unusual activity — no police barricades, no security personnel, not even a heavier than usual police presence. The people around us also didn't display any particular excitement.
To our Israeli eyes, this was very strange, especially considering that the U.S. is currently in a rather advanced stage of an election year. The president of the United States arrives in small-town America and no one makes any kind of fuss?
The Reno convention thus became a test of leadership before an audience of veterans, united around the loftiest of American values: patriotism. The audience comprised of soldiers who fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and more recently in Iraq and in Afghanistan. To this day, they take extreme pride in their uniforms, their medals and their camaraderie.
The event was a very interesting experience for an Israeli. The convention center housed a fair where items of military clothing, medals, decorations, books, flags and various collectibles were on sale. The veterans milled around, all donning VFW hats — the same hats that once covered the heads of active U.S. soldiers. Some of them were in full uniform, others in partial uniform. Many of them displayed their military decorations on their chests.
It appeared that most of the veterans attending the convention were Republicans. But there were others. For example, we met a Jewish colonel who had fought in the Vietnam War. He had been awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest combat military decoration in the American armed forces. And, of course, he has family in Israel. Generally, he has not been too satisfied with any president, and he has yet to decide for whom he will vote this time around.
There was also another veteran, who served both in Korea and Vietnam. He is 80 years old, an avid patriot, and wants to see Obama move out of the White House, because, as he put it, the president had dishonored the U.S. and undermined its standing in the world.
It was before these people that Obama stood and tried to defend his foreign policy and his defense policy. But he also addressed the issues that pertain specifically to the veterans, like the high incidence of suicide. Romney, for his part, mainly criticized Obama's foreign policy and presented his vision. "I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country," Romney declared, eliciting the crowd's cheers. He delivered a biting attack on national security leaks in the Obama administration, saying that "whoever provided classified information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration, must be exposed, dismissed, and punished." Again, the crowd cheered.
He also spoke about Iran and terror, and about Israel. As mentioned above, it was after this speech that we met with him backstage.
Mr. Governor, during your election campaign you told your audience multiple times that if they re-elect Obama, Iran will have nuclear weapons, but if they elect Romney, Iran won't have a nuclear weapon. Is that a presidential commitment?
"It fully describes my commitment to take whatever action is necessary to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear. A nuclear Iran is a threat to America and to the world."
Sir, in your book "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," you wrote that not only does Iran pose a threat to the U.S. but any country that supplies weapons to terrorists who target American soldiers, like Iran, is actually an enemy. As president, would you use American military force against Iran? How would you respond to an Israeli attack aiming to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?
"I don't want to discuss the specific actions that might be taken by our government or by others except to say that I would anticipate that we would be in close communication and in common purpose with those who share our views that Iran must not become a nuclear power."
Last week, five Israeli tourists were murdered by a suicide bomber in Bulgaria. The Olympic Games are about to begin in London amid threats of jihadist terror. How do you plan to win the war against terror?
"First I will recognize it for what it is. The threat of terror is part of radical, violent jihad being waged by al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations including Hezbollah and Hamas. So we must acknowledge that this is not the work of a small group of individuals but rather a very substantial movement that poses a threat to the security and peace of our planet.
"I will also lock arms with our allies and friends to make sure that those who would threaten the peace and security of the world understand that we are united in our commitment to prevent terror and radical violent Islamic jihadism from destroying lives and destroying peace."
The battle of the small business owner
Romney is a soft-spoken man. Up close he looks like a movie star: tall, graying at the temples and tanned. He definitely has the presidential look. Now it is up to the American people to decide whether he has managed to convince them of his ability to lead and get the job done.
The situation is very complex. Over the last two weeks, the presidential race has become dirty and aggressive. The Obama camp has tried to present Romney's career at Bain Capital — a career that made Romney a very wealthy man — as shameful. These efforts were compounded by allegations of tax evasion, offshore accounts, and the argument that Romney, the son of a well-off man who dabbled in politics, is simply too rich to be a presidential candidate.
In return, Romney slammed Obama for remarks that suggested small business owners owed their success to centralized government. This remark ("if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen") was immediately perceived as an expression of Obama's socialist policy, and a critical blow to fundamental American values such as private enterprise, the free market and an individual's right to reap the fruits of his own labor.
Most of the American media tore Romney to shreds, but a USA Today/Gallup poll published on Tuesday presented a starkly different picture: When it comes to the economy, Romney's approval rating has actually gone up. A majority, 63% of those polled, felt that Romney was better equipped than Obama to make decisions regarding the economy, deficit reduction and job creation, owing to his extensive business experience.
Mr. Governor, you have been on the campaign trail for months now, and you are in constant contact with the American public across the United States. What do you think is the one issue that most concerns voters in the current race?
"The issue that is most on people's minds in this country is the economy — the capacity of America to create jobs and raise incomes. In many circles, this topic has crowded out discussion of foreign affairs and developments around the world. I think that is understandable. People are concerned about putting food on the table and there are many American families having a hard time doing that.
"But at the same time, the world is a dangerous place. The Middle East has become far more tumultuous, and dangerous as a result of developments over the last year. Pakistan is more uncertain in its relationship with the West, Turkey is looking less toward the West. Russia has achieved the New START Treaty: They sought to and succeeded in getting America to walk away from our Eastern Europe missile defense sites.
"North Korea has tested a nuclear device and long-range missiles. Iran is closer to nuclearization than it was when President Obama took office. It is hard to feel that the events of the last three and a half years have strengthened America's posture and promoted the prospects of peace."
The war on terror began in 2001 following the September 11 attacks. Do you think we are winning this war? Are the good guys winning?
"I think progress has been made. I think it was important to remove the government in Afghanistan. I also believe that the elimination of Saddam Hussein's government was a positive step. The most recent killing of Osama bin Laden I think was another step forward.
"There are however others who will take the place of these jihadist leaders and we must continue to be vigilant in seeking them out and eliminating the threat that they pose. This is not something that is going to be over in the immediate future, it's going to take a sustained effort on the part of the United States and our friends around the world."
Assad will be removed
You've accused President Obama of receiving accolades from America's foes and turning his back on its allies, including Israel. You have even declared that "Obama threw Israel under the bus." If you were in the White House, what would you do differently?
"I would treat Israel like the friend and ally it is. We share not only common interests, but also common values. And if there were places where we disagree, I would hold these disagreements in private conversations, not in public forums. I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world. I believe that he should have mentioned instead the thousands of rockets that are being fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
"The president has also spoken of returning to 1967 borders — they are indefensible. And acting as a negotiator and usurping the primary role played by Israel in negotiating for its own future is not the right course for America to take."
You say that Obama failed in many areas especially in foreign policy. How do you view the Arab Spring and the way in which the U.S. responded to the uprisings in those Arab states?
"Clearly we're disappointed in seeing Tunisia and Morocco elect Islamist governments. We're very concerned in seeing the new leader in Egypt as an Islamist leader. It is our hope to move these nations toward a more modern view of the world and to not present a threat to their neighbors and to the other nations of the world."
"The Arab Spring is not appropriately named. It has become a development of more concern and it occurred in part because of the reluctance on the part of various dictators to provide more freedom to their citizens. President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner."
Every day we are seeing horrific images coming out of Syria, and suddenly we are witnessing Russia regaining dominance and blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions three times. As president, how would you handle the crisis in Syria?
"With regard to Syria, my view was that we should have spoken from the very beginning in a very clear manner that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad should leave the post of leader of his nation; that he should be replaced. We should have spoken to the Alawites to assure them that they would have a place in a future Syria. We should have worked with Turkey and Saudi Arabia to help the insurgents in Syria gain armament to protect themselves and we should have used our relations with our fellow nations in the world to be very clear in condemning the brutality that has been pursued by Mr. Assad."
"I do not believe that America should take military action in Syria, certainly not at this point. I also am highly uncertain as to the ultimate conclusion of what will happen in Syria. I believe that Mr. Assad will be removed; I think it's virtually impossible for someone who has done to his own people what he has done to remain in leadership. But I don't know what will follow him, and I recognize that this represents another level of uncertainty that poses a threat to the Middle East and to Israel."
In your book you urge America not to apologize for wanting to be a great nation and a world leader. What do you think about America's current standing, and how do you plan to change it?
"First of all, to be a strong leader. You describe what your objectives are with clarity and you lock arms with your allies because their strength makes you stronger. You don't criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes. A strong nation is admired by its friends and respected by its adversaries.
"The president gave in to Russia on their number one foreign policy objective, which was the removal of missile defense sites from Poland, and obtained nothing of great significance in exchange. That kind of posture leads other nations to wonder whether America has strength or instead is seeking to appease and accommodate others. I happen to believe that the New START Treaty was another accommodation and reset for Russia and I don't believe that Russia is deserving of gifts from America. Instead, Russia should be appropriately viewed as a nation with which we negotiate and show our backbone, recognizing that they intend to do the same."
Mr. Governor, you are planning to visit Israel soon and we want to know what message you will be bringing to the Israeli people.
"Well, my message really is to the people of the United States…"
Yes, but as you know, you have quite a few potential voters living in Israel who hold American citizenship…
"I can assure the people of the United States, whether living in Israel or living here that my intent is to stand with Israel as a friend, to recognize our shared values and shared interests, to take action that communicates to the region that we will defend Israel and we will work in concert to combat the threats that face Israel and the world."
Obama no longer symbolizes hope
You can count on one hand the number of times that an American president was unable to gain enough of the public's approval to win a second term. In modern times we have Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H. W. Bush (1992), both of whom lost to candidates who would become mythological presidents — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
In 2008, Obama had everything going for him — at least on paper. He had the potential to become a historic president thanks to his ability, not his skin color. As far as many American voters were concerned, when he overtook his Republican opponent John McCain, he had won the keys to the White House for eight years. But the American people's disappointment with Obama has been so powerful that the 2012 race is now too tight to call. Obama, the incumbent, obviously has the home court advantage, but today (and who would have believed it four years ago?) it is Mitt Romney who symbolizes hope.
The 2010 midterm elections served as a red flag for Obama. The Republicans realized that they had a shot at the presidency in 2012, and this realization manifested itself in a Republican primary that looked like a boxing ring. The Republicans didn't cut Romney any slack. Many within his own camp viewed him, and many still do, as a candidate who could easily have been nominated by the opposing Democrats.
But something happened since Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee. The will of many Americans to boot out Obama has nudged them directly into Romney's arms.
Today's America is a country that has lost significant ground. It is not the same America that once wielded a menacing power of deterrence and dictated the world's agenda. Under Obama's watch, the U.S. has at times become a follower, like in the Libyan crisis, or hesitant and insecure, for example over the Syrian crisis.
But it gets worse. Americans are most concerned about "putting food on the table." Obama has been unsuccessful in efforts to pull the U.S. out of the financial crisis, and he has not been able to create jobs. To his credit, he did assume the presidency at a particularly difficult time, but on the other hand, his very limited "achievements" have proven to the world that he is no messiah — he is only flesh and blood.
Obama's foreign policy failed, as did his fiscal policy. How ironic that the same man who won a Nobel Peace Prize so early in his presidency ended up being the same man who revived the Cold War.
Many Americans have become disenchanted with their president, but that is not enough to make them fall in love with the other guy. Romney managed to be a pretty good governor of Massachusetts, and he even salvaged the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, but the presidential race is not a game. The world has indeed become a dangerous place, and America, Israel's chief ally, has a central role in ensuring stability and preserving peace as much as possible.
Obama always held up Abraham Lincoln as his role model; Romney has a few, some of them are even Democrats. One of Romney's role models is Dwight Eisenhower — a Republican president who pushed America forward without going to war. Eisenhower never won a Nobel Peace Prize, but he did win a second term in office.
Obama would most probably trade his Nobel Prize for the promise of four more years in the White House. But everything that was so clear in 2008 has become a mystery in 2012.
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