HUMAN EVENTS editors Tom Winter and Jeb Babbin interviewed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on September 18. Here are excerpts from the interview.
HUMAN EVENTS: You gave a really good speech June 1 at the U.S. Navy Memorial. I think that’s been given a lot less coverage, frankly, than it deserved and I wanted to go over some of the points there with you. Right off the bat, you’re starting off by saying at that point we’ve got roughly 180,000 people deployed to the theaters of war, and America’s national security has to begin with those wars and the absolute necessity of winning them. Let me just ask you a question: is it war, singular, or wars plural, and why?
ROMNEY: I’m not sure of the distinction you’re making, but there is a global conflict which is promoted under the broad umbrella of jihadism, a radical, violent, fundamentalist movement — a small slice of the world of Islam — that is intent on causing the collapse of America, the collapse of Israel, and ultimately the domination of the world. And that is a movement which in its military and violent form is being combated all over the world, by us and by our friends, and so what’s happening in Iraq is very similar to what’s happening in Afghanistan. And while there may be different players, and local concerns as well that may be involved, we are confronting a jihadist enemy that is intent on doing us harm, is killing our men and women, and we must use every resource at our command to be successful at defending ourselves and defeating this terrible enemy.
HE: One of the things that a lot of conservatives are worried about is the strategy that has been pursued since Bush decided upon it in January of ’03 — the question of nation-building in Iraq. I know that you had some words in there last June about how successful it was at least at that point. What is your view? Should our strategy be based on the concept of nation-building. If so, why? If not, what should we be doing otherwise?
ROMNEY: I think you have to look at the specific nation involved and what the potential is for that nation to develop the institutions that are necessary for a democracy to thrive. And it is our desire to encourage the development of those institutions in nations around the world, and to encourage those freedoms that will lead to democracy which could provide greater stability and actually encourage world peace. But if you look at a specific nation and what we’re going to do in that nation, our objectives have to be matched with the realties of what’s in place, at the same time trying to encourage those developments which will make our prospects better. So nation-building in Somalia or the Sudan, not high on our priority right now. Defeating the forces of al Qaeda or Hezbollah, can be a high-objective for us. And in some circumstances, such as Iraq, the surge strategy provided the safety to the public that allowed for an Iraqi government to be established and a nation to emerge. And I think that was an appropriate objective for us to have pursued. We’ll see where it leads. It was clearly the right thing for America to remove Sadaam Hussein. But it was a very questionable mission to be able to see the nation find its own legs and create a stable government. It has made progress, in some respects positive and in some respects not so positive. Clearly the relationship with Iran, with now a Shia-dominated government in Iraq, is one of those things that’s more troubling.
HE: In terms of victory, I don’t know that President Bush ever defined victory in the global conflict in Iraq, or anything else, as more than just an Iraq that could sustain, govern, and defend itself. Would you agree with that definition? If not, in terms not just with Iraq — but you referred earlier to the global war with the jihadists — how do we know that we’ve won, if we have?
ROMNEY: The term victory, I think, has to be defined, or success, has to be defined in terms of the theater, or the engagement that we’ve entered into. What you would expect in one setting may be quite different than another. What you’d expect in the Sudan might be different than what you might expect or hope for in Iraq. With regards to global jihad, victory would be reaching the point where violent jihadism has been so rejected by the Islamic people itself and so thwarted by ourselves and by like-minded people throughout the world that it no longer could successfully attack Islamic or non-Islamic states, including our own.
HE: In terms of that, and I want to shift to another subject in just a minute, but in his memoir, Eyes on the Horizon, former Chief of Staff Richard Myers suggests that unless the nations that sponsored terrorism are forced to, or negotiated into, or somehow otherwise persuaded to stop sponsoring terror, you can’t end the war. Do you agree with that, disagree with it?
ROMNEY: My point was that victory is reaching a point where jihadists and those that would carry out violent acts on others, are incapable of doing so. And if there are governments, such as the government of Iran, that is providing funding and weapons to jihadists, it would be very hard to achieve that objective. And therefore victory is going to require a successful effort in preventing nations like Iran from carrying out their most heinous acts of killing American soldiers and providing support for terrorist acts.
HE: You have a couple other things in your speech which are really quite relevant. You say here: “Missile defense is a non-nuclear, entirely defensive system designed to protect not just America but the world from a catastrophic attack. Yet the President plans to cut the missile defense budget by 15%, cut funding for missile defense sites in Europe by 80%, and reduce the number of planned interceptors in Alaska.” Mr. Obama seems to have one-upped you, sir. He is now effectively canceling the Bush plan for ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe. What do you think should be done as an alternative to the Obama handling of ballistic missile defense?
ROMNEY: Well, the threat of nuclear terror and nuclear attack on one nation or another has only gotten larger, not smaller, over the last few years. Not only because of North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear testing, but also given Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear nation. The instability of Pakistan, with its very extensive nuclear capacities has increased the risk, not lessened it. For that reason, a nuclear defense system must be at least one of the highest priorities of the United States of America. And a decision to pull back from missile defense can only in my view be the result of the Democrats’ resistance to supporting anything that Ronald Reagan came up with, and that people like George Bush supported. It is such a common-sense objective, recognized by American citizens around the world to protect ourselves from nuclear terror, that I simply cannot understand President Obama’s decision to walk away from our commitments to Europe, and particularly the Czech Republic and Poland. The arguments have been made that this is a show of good faith for the Russians to get them to join us in actions on Iran. But I spend a lot of time in negotiation. The first rule in negotiation is if you’re planning on giving up something that’s important to you, make sure you and get something that’s more important to you from the other side. You don’t give away your most valuable asset just because the other guy asked for it. That’s No. 1, and I can’t imagine giving it away under any circumstances, but at least you should have gotten something for it. No. 2, giving into Putin’s blustering will teach him to only do more of the same. No. 3, to suggest that, gee, their current missiles can only reach the Southern part of Europe, so we really don’t have to worry about protecting Europe, is more faith in our intelligence eyesight than even our intelligence officers, I’m sure, would argue for. And recognize also, over time, clearly the capacity to develop missiles that go a longer distance is not something which is impossible, so the idea of timing our missile defense to the exact moment when the nation or state might be able to have that capacity is the height of absurdity. No one is that prescient.
HE: One of the things you just hit on, I think, is a key that President Obama is missing. And Defense Secretary Gates misstated things rather severely when he said, ‘Well, we know now, the intelligence says that their long-range missiles are delayed for several years and the short-range missiles are faster.’ I deal a lot with the intelligence community, and no one has dissuaded me so far that Porter Goss was right when last he said that we don’t have a clue as to what’s going on in Iran, and all of these things — it strikes me that, as you said, the intelligence on this is not to be relied on. The danger of making this sort of computation on insufficient intelligence —
ROMNEY: The danger’s obviously cataclysmic. And recognize there are other intelligence agencies that take a far less rosy stance with regards to Iran’s nuclear capabilities or their intentions. Where Iran is today is not the only relevant feature. It’s also where can they be over the next decade or decades. And certainly, the ability to transport nuclear material, which they now have, into other parts of the world is something we have to be concerned about. It simply is beyond reason to think that we should not have a robust capacity to defend against nuclear terror.
HE: Nancy Pelosi has said that the CIA makes it a practice of lying to Congress. The attorney general has launched a preliminary investigation to see if people should be investigated for torture in the CIA interrogations. Everything I hear from inside the intelligence community is that morale is shot, people don’t want to be there, performance is down. What would you advice President Obama if you were sitting there now to kind of quell this disturbance?
ROMNEY: There’s no way the President can quell the dispirited members of the intelligence community by simply speaking to them, or by presenting his views of what Kathleen Parker called a “group hug” of foreign policy. The only way he can encourage members of our intelligence community is by committing the resources that this community needs to get the job done, but indicating that he will stand with them as commander-in-chief, and that he values the information that they receive, and by showing the kind of respect and confidence in our intelligence community that they deserve if they’re going to carry out the mission that they have.
HE: If you were President, would you tell Atty. Gen. Holder to back off on this investigation?
ROMNEY: Absolutely… Going after the prior administration for practices which were deemed lawful by that administration and by their attorneys is not a productive course for America. President Obama has hung our laundry out for the world to see with regards to interrogations, at the same time without showing the results of those very interrogations. The implication is that he was only trying to discredit the Bush Administration. He didn’t need to do that in order to make his own decision. He made his decision about what he was going to do, he didn’t have to say what the prior administration did. You know, I think President Obama has yet to get over a desire to try and discredit the prior administration. The other night as he addressed Congress, he referred I think more than once to the tax cuts for the rich, and the deficit that he inherited. It’s time to get beyond that, and to set his own course, and with regards to intelligence, if America’s going to be kept safe, it is overwhelmingly through our intelligence capacities, and also through the strength of our military. I had the occasion, as you know, to help organize the Olympic Games of 2002. We were concerned about a potential terrorist attack on the games in Salt Lake City. As the games came to town, people wondered, are we going to be safe or not? The answer: I was confident that we were going to be safe. Not because of the magnetometers that we had, or the fences, or even our inter-operable communications system. I was confident because we had effective intelligence for it. FBI teams were checking various potential threats. That’s what gave me the confidence. You got to find the bad guys. You can’t protect every potential target with barricades and fences. You have to find the bad guys and that’s what the intelligence community’s able to do.
HE: Gitmo. Not a fun place to be, but a really secure place. President Obama seems bound and determined to close it in January and there’s still rumors and various reports that some of these folks are going to be brought here to the United States for imprisonment or for trial or whatever. What’s your view? Should Gitmo be closed, and if so, where should we put those characters?
ROMNEY: My views as expressed during the campaign is that Gitmo plays an important role, that it should be kept open, that bringing those terrorists to our soil would pose a potential threat in terms of their interactions with prisoners here. As we know that sending them back to other countries, in some cases, has lead to them being on the battlefield and killing American servicemen and women. There is a real cost to closing a facility which is able to house those that have been taken in conflict. And somehow treating terrorists as if they’re common criminals entitled to legal representation if they cannot furnish them at their own expense is a remarkable breach of wartime philosophy.
HE: I cannot fathom how you order your people to give these guys Miranda rights on the battlefield. Does that make any sense to you?
ROMNEY: It does not make sense, and you clearly can’t have people testifying in courts about what they saw. That’s the nature of wartime incarceration, and there has been long precedent of that. Gitmo has played an important role, but I understand that to some, it’s a symbol of America’s failures. To me it’s a symbol of America’s resolve against those who would do us harm.
HE Overall, what grade would you give the Obama administration now?
ROMNEY: I used to be asked that about the Bush administration, I said I’m not going to give grades. It’s easier for me to give that for the Obama administration. The stimulus receives a failing grade, because it was inappropriately crafted. It could have actually created jobs and boosted the economy on a more immediate basis. It did not do that. Will the economy come back? Yes. But the stimulus has not helped as much as it could have. Cap and trade gets a failing grade in that it represents that we are now at $1,761 cost per average family in American, it would represent effectively a 15% increase in our tax grade, or the equivalent of a 15% increase in our tax rate. It will not improve the world’s climate simply because high greenhouse gas emits will move from a nation like ours to a nation like China where they don’t have those limits. The healthcare plan that he has is another failing grade. Some things we can all agree on: insurers shouldn’t be able to drop people when they get sick, people with pre-existing conditions need help getting insurance, an exchange, which is what we pioneered in Massachusetts could work quite well. Some of those things we could all agree on. And I recognize that that’s something which is a positive. But the idea of a public option with a government insurance program is absolutely wrong and deserves to be taken off the table. Likewise, the level of expenditure that he’s posing — almost a trillion dollars, which you know will grow much larger over decades — is not something that America can afford. His plans to spend this nation into additional excessive borrowing would, in the words of Sen. Judd Gregg, bankrupt America. And that is dangerous, and of course another failing grade. There’s some things he’s done that I agree with. I’m glad he didn’t pull our troops out of Iraq as soon as he said he was going to. I’m glad he adopted our philosophy in Iraq. I’m glad that he has been supportive of the efforts in Afghanistan, although not as successful there as we might have hoped. And I’m sure there’s some other things. I’m trying to think of them.
HE: I was going to ask you about cash for clunkers and the whole outlook for the automobile industry.
ROMNEY: The right course for the automobile industry, which I indicated from the outset, was don’t bail them out until you restructure them. And we put about $20 billion into those companies, which is just money down the drain in my opinion. They needed to go through bankruptcy to be restructured. The administration finally came around to that, and Chrysler and General Motors went through that process. Once they went through bankruptcy, and with the government’s additional support of those enterprises, the government got a lot of stock. That stock should have been distributed to the American public, the taxpayers, not held by government for Barack Obama and his administration to try to soldier the American out of the wheel industry.
HE: Again, if you were President, how or would work-out a deal to get the government out of the auto business, and if so, how long do you think it would take to do?
ROMNEY: Take something like General Motors. You can get government out of General Motors very quickly by distributing the shares of General Motors which the government holds to the American taxpayers. And now government is out, and it’s back to being a fully public company, owned by the American people, and of course most of us would sell our stock, but there’d be some buyers, and they would accumulate stock, and you’d have shareholders, and share-holder meetings, and directors, and it’d be run by the American people, or guided by the directors, so by the American people. As opposed to being guided by politicians. It’s very hard for a business to respond to politics, because they’ll be building cars that politicians want to be elected, but not cars that Americans want to drive down the road. Look, I love American cars, I drive American cars, my heritage is Detroit, and there’s no reason why our car companies can’t compete with anyone in the world. But if government steps in and tries to run those businesses, that could be a very unfortunate course.
HE: Sen. John Thune has a bill which is of course gone nowhere to require a date-certain for government to pull out of industry, effectively along the lines of what you’re talking about. Is that something that should be looked at in your judgment?
ROMNEY: I haven’t seen the bill, but absolutely. In banking, government has a legitimate role to make sure that there’s sufficient reserves to meet the obligations of depositors and so forth, and we have bank examiners, and in some cases we step in, we take over the bank, and I understand that, there’s a lot of precedent there. In my opinion, there’s no reason for our government to continue to hold General Motors stock. And they ought to get out of that business.
HE: What’s going to happen in Massachusetts?
ROMNEY: Without question, they will allow the governor to appoint a senator to give them the extra vote they may need to provide cloture. They will swallow their pride, acknowledge the hypocrisy of flipping for entirely political purposes, recognizing that when I was making the arguments they’re making now that they were indivisible and silent, but they will certainly do what they’re being asked to do by the leader of their party.
HE: How’s the state feeling up there?
ROMNEY: There’s always a chance a Republican can win. I think most people recognize that almost anywhere in the Northeast these days, Republicans are distinct underdogs. I will be campaigning for Scott Brown, who’s the Republican running for U.S. Senate. But I think he recognizes that it’s a long shot for a Republican to pick up that seat. I can hold out hope, and you never know what’s going to happen.
HE: That’s the HUMAN EVENTS optimism forever. What about yourself and looking ahead?
ROMNEY: It’s hard to see beyond the horizon. The horizon I see is 2009. I’m campaigning this weekend for Bill Bolen of Virginia, for Bob McDonald of Virginia. I think next week with Chris Christie in New Jersey. So I’m working on those races, and then I will help in congressional and Senate and gubernatorial races in 2010. But those are not highly visible things. They’re very important to our nation, and that’s the sort of thing I can do to be of help. I’ll be coming up with a book in the first quarter of next year, it’s finished, it’ll be coming out then.
HE: Haley Barbour says he will make his decision or say something after the congressional actions. In ’10.
ROMNEY: I just haven’t thought about time frame or what the considerations will be. I haven’t thought about when I would make the decision. Sure, I think about it, am I going to do it again? My wife and I talk about it: yes, no, pros and cons. As for the time frame, the final decision point, I don’t know when that is.
HE: But it should be a better year for a candidate, don’t you think?
ROMNEY: Given what President Obama has done on his stimulus, on his cap and trade, on his health care bill, on card check, on missile defense, on Honduras, on Israel, it ought to be a very good year for Republicans in 2010 and beyond.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter