MR. SCHIEFFER: We’ll get to that, but let’s give the president a chance.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida’s 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. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.
But, Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s. You say that you’re not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq, but just a few weeks ago you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now.
And the — the challenge we have — I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq despite the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day. You indicated that we shouldn’t be passing nuclear treaties with Russia, despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it.
You’ve said that first we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong but you were also confusing and sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies.
So what — what we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map. And unfortunately, that’s the kind of opinions that you’ve offered throughout this campaign, and it is not a recipe for American strength or keeping America safe over the long term.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I’m going to add a couple of minutes here to give you a chance to respond.
MR. ROMNEY: Well, of course I don’t concur with what the president said about my own record and the things that I’ve said. They don’t happen to be accurate. But — but I can say this: that we’re talking about the Middle East and how to help the Middle East reject the kind of terrorism we’re seeing and the rising tide of tumult and — and confusion. And — and attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East and take advantage of the opportunity there and stem the tide of this violence. But I’ll respond to a couple of the things you mentioned. First of all, Russia, I indicated, is a geopolitical foe, not —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Number one —
MR. ROMNEY: Excuse me. It’s a geopolitical foe. And I said in the same — in the same paragraph, I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. 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.
Number two, with regards to Iraq, you and I agreed, I believe, that there should have been a status of forces agreement. Did you — PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s not true.
MR. ROMNEY: Oh, you didn’t — you didn’t want a status of forces agreement?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, but what I — what I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.
MR. ROMNEY: I’m sorry, you actually — there was a —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Here — here is — here is —
MR. ROMNEY: There was an effort on the part of the president to have a status of forces agreement. And I concurred in that and said we should have some number of troops that stayed on. That was something I concurred with.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor —
MR. ROMNEY: That was your posture. That was my posture as well.
I thought it should have been 5,000 troops.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor —
MR. ROMNEY: I thought it should have been more troops. But you — (inaudible).
PRESIDENT OBAMA: This is just a few weeks ago.
MR. ROMNEY: The answer was, we got no troop (through ?) whatsoever.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: This is just a few weeks ago that you indicated that we should still have troops in Iraq.
MR. ROMNEY: No, I didn’t. I’m sorry, that’s —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You made a major speech.
MR. ROMNEY: I indicated — I indicated that you failed to put in place a status of forces agreement at the end of the conflict that —
MR. SCHIEFFER: Governor —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor, here’s — here’s one thing — here’s one thing — here’s one thing I’ve learned as commander in chief.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Let him have — (inaudible).
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean. Now, you just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq. That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East.
Now, it is absolutely true that we cannot just beat these challenges militarily, and so what I’ve done throughout my presidency and will continue to do, is, number one, make sure that these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts; number two, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel’s security, because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region. Number three, we do have to make sure that we’re protecting religious minorities and women because these countries can’t develop unless all the population — not just half of it — is developing. Number four, we do have to develop their economic — their economic capabilities. But number five, the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation building here at home. That will help us maintain the kind of American leadership that we need.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me interject the second topic question in this segment about the Middle East and so on, and that is, you both mentioned — alluded to this, and that is Syria. The war in Syria has now spilled over into Lebanon. We have, what, more than a hundred people that were killed there in a bomb. There were demonstrations there, eight people dead.
Mr. President, it’s been more than a year since you saw — you told Assad he had to go. Since then 30,000 Syrians have died. We’ve had 300,000 refugees. The war goes on. He’s still there. Should we reassess our policy and see if we can find a better way to influence events there, or is that even possible? And it’s you — you go first, sir.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: 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.
Now, 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 our 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.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Governor.
MR. ROMNEY: Well, let’s step back and talk about what’s happening in Syria and how important it is. First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster.
Secondly, Syria’s 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 — of — if not government, a form of — 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 — with Israel. But the Saudis and the Qatari and — 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 — the insurgents 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 such 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 that 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 — and said, we’re going to try — have a cease-fire.
That didn’t work. Then it looked to the Russians and said, see if you can do something. we should. We should be playing the leadership role there, not on the ground with military —
MR. SCHIEFFER: All right.
MR. ROMNEY: — by the leadership role.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We are — we playing the leadership role. We organized the “Friends of Syria.” We are mobilizing humanitarian support and support for the opposition. And we are making sure that that those we help are those who will be friends of ours in the long term and friends of our allies in the region over the long term.
But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.
Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. That’s part of the reason why the Libyans stand with us. But we did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Governor, can I just ask you, would you go beyond what the administration would do? Like, for example, would you put in no-fly zones over Syria?
MR. ROMNEY: I don’t — I don’t want to have our military involved in — in Syria. I don’t think there’s a necessity to put our military in Syria at — at this stage.
I don’t anticipate that in the future.
As I indicated, our objectives are to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us — a responsible government, if possible. And I want to make sure the get armed and they have the arms necessary to defend themselves but also to remove — to remove Assad. But I do not want to see a military involvement on the part of — of our — of our troops.
And this isn’t — this isn’t going to be necessary. We have — with our partners in the region, we have sufficient resources to support those groups. But look, this has been going on for a year. 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 there to find responsible parties.