Haaretz Q&A with Ambassador Richard Williamson
Adviser to U.S. Republican presidential candidate says the former Massachusetts governor approves of arming Syria's rebels, making credible threats against Iran.
By Chemi Shalev | Jun.08, 2012 | 10:48 PM | 4
Richard Williamson. Photo by U.S. Mission, Geneva
Q. Governor Romney has said that he thinks that the US should arm the rebels in Syria. Given the complex situation there – is that really such a good idea?
A. This humanitarian crisis has now gone on for over 16 months and for two months after the violence began, Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and the Obama Administration were saying that Bashar el Assad is a “reformer.” Then they said no, this has to stop and he has to go, but they’ve done nothing more than that rhetorically. With the Security Council they’ve had a “mother, may I approach” where Russia determines what we can do, and as you know, Russia has a strategic interest in Syria, its foothold in the Arab world. It has been and continues to arm the Assad regime.
It’s also noteworthy to mention that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, has said that the greatest strategic blow to Iran would be the fall of Bashar Assad.
So the U.S. has a strategic interest here, both because Russia clearly not only has domestic authoritarian drift but on foreign affairs it works contrary to our interests, whether it's in the illegal occupation of Abkhazia, the use of oil and gas against Central and Eastern Europe, the position it's taken with Iran, with North Korea etc. So in both cases we have people that are taking unfriendly actions, in the case of Iran much more serious with their efforts for nuclear breakout and who have a strategic interest in Russia.
It’s been the position of Governor Romney that we have to recognize the strategic issue and tactically we should be standing up to protest the innocents. And the difficulty today is that the opposition is not unified, there’s a vacuum, so that bad actors have rushed in to fill it, including elements of al-Qaida and the Muslim brotherhood.
And we would point out that what U.S. government should have been doing for the last 14-16 months is working with the opposition, helping them unify, helping the moderate forces in the opposition be in a posture to lead, and that would have not allowed the vacuum that is being filled by al-Qaida and the Muslim brotherhood.
Q. So what should be done now?
A. Now we should be working covertly and otherwise with the opposition with Turkey who has a great interest and with our other Middle Eastern friends, of which our strongest most reliable is our fellow democracy in Israel, to get a unified approach. The difficulty of what is going on in Syria is going to bleed into Iraq, it’s going to bleed into Lebanon, it bleeds into Turkey, it bleeds into Jordan, and of course this is bad for some of our friends, particularly the State of Israel.
Q. So should we arm the rebels or not?
A. There are rebels that we could be arming. My point is that we could have been working for over a year to have a better position for the moderates who are standing up to Assad. Two – we should be doing that right now, even if we have failed to do it for fourteen months, to seek out the moderate elements that we could be working with and could comfortably arm.
You are pointing out a legitimate concern that the arms go to bad actors, but doing nothing is not acceptable because it’s getting into a more and more acute situation; elements that are not in the interests of either the United States or Israel or other friends in the region are gaining influence among the opposition, and Iran and Russia continue to arm and there are even reports of Iranian groups on the ground in Syria. So all of this is of great concern we should be more proactive. If the U.S. government had done what the Governor had begun to call for a year ago, working with the opposition, we would be in a much better position; we should try to make the best of a bad situation, which we allowed to get bad because of President Obama’s feckless and ineffective leadership.
Q. But even if you disregard the bad elements in the opposition, the basis of what is going on in Syria is a sectarian war, which will probably get worse even if the opposition wins. Then you might face a situation in which American arms are used to commit atrocities against the Alawite minority.
A. You’re pointing out a correct concern, that any action has certain risks. But inaction also has risks. And if you were working with the opposition you would also be working to give assurance to some of the minority groups, including the Alawites, that they would be participating in the coalition-opposition as it rises and takes over after Assad inevitably leaves. So the point is legitimate but by pushback is that inaction is not a solution, it’s crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.
Q. Same question on Iran – I know you have a lot of criticism on what the president has done until now, but what would Governor Romney be doing differently?
A. First of all it’s important to point out that candidate Barack Obama conceded that the greatest “gathering storm” to U.S. security interests and our friends was the nuclear program in Iran and its approach towards nuclear breakout. We are now three years later, and irrefutably Iran is closer to nuclear breakout: it has more centrifuges, it has more enriched uranium, as we recently discovered, it’s not only 20% but they even have uranium that’s been enriched to 27%.
And they are the biggest sponsors of terrorism in the world, according to Barak Obama’s own state department. And the President of Iran Ahmadinejad not only denies the Holocaust but also has said that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.
In June of 2009, after an election that was neither free nor fair, and demonstrators went out, instead of standing for the values that America cherishes we muted our voice while that crackdown was occurring, while people were being imprisoned, raped and even beaten to death and killed, including Neda Agha Soltan on that famous video.
What’s the message in Iran? Barack Obama in the campaign says I’m going to reach out to them no matter how they behave. When he gets in, within the first 60 days he reaches out. Within the first six months we keep silent and we mute our criticism. We keep trying to engage and we allow the UN Security Council including Russia and China, who have differing views on the Iranian issue, different risk assessments, determine how far and how robust we can go.
The conclusion is inevitable: Iran knows there is no credible military threat from Barack Obama. As Bismarck said: diplomacy without a credible use of force is like music without instruments. And that’s been the U.S. approach. Even when he finally felt that politically, domestically, he had to be stronger, at the AIPAC conference in April, when he talked about the use of force and “I have Israel’s back” – within two days he was attacking Republicans for saying we should be ready to use force.
Iran sees that. They see the Administration brush scrubbing Israel to try to make it as difficult as possible for Israel to protect its own interests, and the message in Tehran is: there’s no credible military threat. So that’s the first thing that would be different.
If Mitt Romney is president – or rather, when he’s president – they will understand that while he wants a negotiated resolution on the nuclear threat, the only nuclear resolution is a total suspension of enrichment, as the UN Security Council resolutions require and intrusive inspections, including the additional protocols of the IAEA, which Tehran has refused to comply with. And if they continue in their relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons that will destabilize the entire region, threaten our dear and reliable friend the State of Israel, force various Sunni regimes, probably, to seek out their own nuclear breakout - then the only thing worse than using force is that Iran has nuclear weapons.
Second – the governor would work to getting a negotiated settlement, but he would not be telegraphing the sort of outrageous compromises that this Administration has made clear they would be willing to accept, such as enrichment to 5%, or that they would be willing to help supply fuel for research reactors etc.
The fact is that Iran has behaved in a way inconsistent with their commitment in the IAEA charter. Iran is verbally and otherwise threatening friends. Iran has killed American in Iraq. Iran is threatening the existence of our most reliable ally and friend in the Middle East in the State of Israel, and the U.S. administration, for three and a half years, has been accommodationist, naively sought engagement, and it has been feckless.
And when Israel has talked about the range of options they may have to consider to protect their own interest, the Obama administration have done their best to crowd Israel, to make it difficult if not impossible for Israel to do what it must.
In the end, peace is most attainable through strength. Under Barack Obama, our national security capabilities have decreased.
Q. There are people who will tell you that the conditions that you laid out would be unacceptable to Iran. And from what I can understand from you, in that case, Governor Romney would employ force against Iran?
A. I appreciate what you’re trying to do. It’s what journalists do. Try to simplify it into a false dichotomy. I have outlined a whole series of steps that would have a comprehensive and different approach towards Iran. But yes, I have said, as has Governor Romney, that in the end you must be willing to use force to get the accommodations that are required so that the safety of the region and the state of Israel are secure.
Q. Is that really a credible threat? Is it credible to believe that in his first year in office, Governor Romney would commit the United States to a war?
A. It is credible that governor Romney has been consistent. That the best way to secure United States’ security is through strength. It is consistent, and it is Governor Romney’s belief that nuclear breakout from Iran would be calamitous to our friend Israel, to the region and to US interests and that we would have to take robust steps.
I am not going to give you a timeline. I am not going to say exactly what the Governor would do. You know full well that would be irresponsible. But he would be coming in not saying “I want to engage, first and foremost”, not that I am going to keep my voice quiet while you kill people on the street with batons, we would not be saying that I’m going to be playing “mother may I” with Russia and with China. It’s interesting that the tougher sanctions that he (Obama) is now so proud of our sanctions that he opposed when Senators [Robert] Menendez and Senator [Mark] Kirk introduced them to the U.S. Congress, and they are only being imposed because Congress forced him to.
I know you want to have a simple yes or no, this is a difficult issue with many parts, and I’m pointing out a wide range of things that president Romney would do to show that there’s a different sheriff in town, one who appreciates U.S. interests, and who’s going to do what is necessary for our interests and is going to be reliable for our allies, including the State of Israel.
RELATIONS WITH ISRAEL AND NETANYAHU
Q. There all sorts of statements that Governor Romney made during the campaign, that he would call Prime Minister Netanyahu and ask him whether something is helpful or not, or that he would accede to Israeli preferences concerning the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Does Governor Romney have any criticism whatsoever of Israeli policies? Will he allow Netanyahu, as some people have interpreted his comments, to take the lead in formulating American policy towards the Middle East?
A. I guess you could interpret it that way - but it would be a false interpretation. What the Governor has tried to make clear is that one of the unfortunate results of the Obama foreign policy is our friends and allies, including Great Britain, Israel and others, have not had their interests taken into account, have not been consulted closely, and there isn’t a constructive working relationship. I’ll guarantee you this: in a Romney Administration, an American vice president won’t keep the elected prime minister of Israel waiting for 45 minutes for dinner, because of a personal pique.
Q. Even if that Romney vice president would stand in a press conference in Jerusalem while Israel announces the building of 1600 new apartments in the territories?
A. When the Secretary of Defense was in Beijing, and they had a demonstration of a new airplane that they had denied having as a show of force and to be insulting to the United States, Secretary Gates a couple of years ago didn’t look for a way to have revenge and keep his host waiting. We have differences within the United States, we have differences with our best friends overseas, but a constructive relationship has to be worked on every day and that does include changing, without announcement, the criteria for a peace settlement to the 1967 borders, and it’s not keeping other elected leaders waiting. That doesn’t mean that if you disagree with him on the settlements you should be open and say that – no it doesn’t, you should say that. But don’t act like a teenager and keep the prime minister waiting because of a personal pique.
Q. Romney referred to the 1967 borders incident and said the President “threw Israel under the bus” because “the president laid out his view of what Israel should do in the peace process.” Should the U.S. president not present his view of what Israel should do in the peace process?
A. I think what the Governor was referring to – with all due respect to your interpretation – is that trying to get a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been and remains important for the Israel, the United States and others. But, you don’t make a major change in position without consulting your partners and friends.
Q. Does Governor Romney have a position concerning settlements?
A. I don’t believe he’s articulated one. It doesn’t come to mind, I’m sorry,
Q. And you’re not going to either?
A. Well, it would be pretty irresponsible of me if I’m being interviewed as a Romney adviser to express an opinion on something that he hasn’t.
Q. A question about the relations between Romney and Netanyahu. The governor has described his relations with Netanyahu as so close “we can almost speak in shorthand”, while Netanyahu, in an interview with Vanity Fair this week, said, “I don’t think we had any particular connection.”
A. They obviously, it’s documented, they worked group at the Boston Consulting Group right after they both finished their MBA’s, Netanyahu at MIT and Romney at Harvard, they worked together down the hall they had a relationship, it's certainly not for me to guess how close it is. I think it’s fair to say that they’ve had a personal relationship that’s gone on for decades and they have relationship in which they can exchange views both when they agree and when they disagree.
Q. What are your hopes for the Jewish votes?
A. The elections are a long way away, but I think it’s fair to say that Governor Romney is going to get elected President because Barack Obama has failed to be effective on the U.S. economy. It’s the slowest and worst recovery since the Great Depression, and unemployment continues to rise, and unemployed and under-employed are over 20 million people in America. And that’s the factor that’s going to get him elected, and I don’t think religious or other demographics are going to influence the result as much as the performance of the president and the failure to get jobs.
Having said that there are different sub groups in the United States that have voting patterns and we hope to do a little bit better that normal among all those groups.
Q. Can you put a figure on that?
A. No. The only figure is in November, and it will be 50.1% of the American vote.
Q. The Governor said that his first trip abroad would be to Israel. Is that still in force?
A. That was his decision, his statement, and he’s a man who’s good to his word.