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Romney Hopes for Faster Afghanistan Withdrawal if Generals OK Plan

October 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After outlining his foreign policy vision Friday at The Citadel, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney sat down with Judy Woodruff and discussed the war in Afghanistan, his GOP rivals and how he would get more Americans back to work. This is their complete interview. A shorter version aired on the NewsHour broadcast.

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Mitt Romney, thank you very much for talking with us.

MITT ROMNEY: Thanks, Judy. Good to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In your speech today at The Citadel you described the coming American century and you say it is God’s will that America not be a nation of followers. So my question is, are you saying that God does – didn’t intend for other countries in the world to lead; that it intended for other countries to follow the United States?

MITT ROMNEY: You know, I think throughout our history we have recognized that as a nation which has identified from its very beginning certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of the happiness, and a sense that freedom is a universal value – that America has taken on the responsibility to provide for freedom and prosperity for ourselves and we share that with the world. America is a unique and exceptional nation. And the idea that America would allow other nations to get larger and stronger and potentially balance us, that would be, in my opinion, a mistake.

There’s going to be some nation that will lead the world, and it will either be America or it will be someone else. And the someone else right now would probably be the jihadists, China, a resurgent Russia. In my view, the world would be a very different place if America did not fulfill the responsibility of carrying the torch of liberty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying that you believe it’s God’s will that the – that other countries essentially do what the United States wants?

MITT ROMNEY: Judy, you’re pushing that way beyond the intent of the – of the comment. When we say “God bless America,” we have a view that God blesses this country and we welcome the hand of province that’s been part of our history from the very beginning. And I believe part of our history, as a nation which is founded upon principles of freedom and the universality of that principle, gives America a unique role to hold aloft the light of freedom to the world. And it’s something we’ve done in our past and I think it’s something we should do in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You – in your remarks, governor, you suggest that President Obama is weak. You say he’s weakened the country and you talk about that. But this is the president who’s authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden, other al-Qaida leaders like Anwar al-Awlaki just this week; who restarted the war in Afghanistan. Those things don’t count?

MITT ROMNEY: Of course I’m pleased with some of the actions the president’s taken, and I’ve pointed that out. Both in the case of Mr. Awlaki and also in the case of Osama bin Laden, I was pleased that the president took those actions. I supported also the surge in Afghanistan. I’m glad the president changed his mind about the surge. He voted against it in Iraq; he accepted it in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the president’s proposals to dramatically reduce our defense spending, in my view, weakens our military and puts it at greater risk. I also think the decision to pull our troops out of Afghanistan three months ahead of the schedule that was proposed by the military commanders puts us at greater risk. That’s a decision which I think was made on a political calendar, not based upon the calendar of what’s the right thing for America’s troops and America’s mission.

In my view, the president has also weakened America by not rekindling the strength of our economy. I think on virtually no basis can someone conclude that he’s made America’s economy stronger. Even he said we’re worse off than we were three years ago. And the foundation of America’s economic strength is so critical to the foundation of our military strength around the world and the prestige and the strength which we’re able to project throughout the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you’re critical of him on Afghanistan. You say you would listen to the generals. There is an agreement between NATO, the United States and Afghanistan that all foreign troops would be out by 2014. If you’re president, would you abide by that agreement?

MITT ROMNEY: Again, I would listen to the generals, and if that continues to be the view of the – of the commanders in the field as they assess the capabilities of the Afghan military, then of course I would pursue that course. But of – but of – but at the same time we have to be open to what we’re hearing from the people on the ground.

I hope we can perhaps move even faster than that. We’ll listen, again, to the conditions on the ground as they exist because it’s important to us that the transition from our forces to the Afghan security forces. Being able to maintain the sovereignty of the Afghan nation from the tyranny of the Taliban is a – is an important consideration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But isn’t it the role – not but – isn’t the role of the president to make his or her own independent judgment about where American troops go? You were saying you would always defer to the generals. Is that -

MITT ROMNEY: Did I say that? Did I say that, Judy? If I did, let me correct myself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK.

MITT ROMNEY: I said I would listen to the generals and receive the input of those who are the commanders in the field, and then I would make the – my own decision. But I believe that in the case of the president’s decision to withdraw our surge troops in September of 2012 it was a political decision, and not a decision based upon what is necessary for the effects of our effort in Afghanistan.

And by the way, the British followed a different course. They listened to the generals on the ground and said they’re going to keep their troops in through December of 2012 – their surge troops. I think that’s the right course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re pointing to what you call a political decision. The polls do show a majority of Americans now believe it’s time to bring the troops back from Afghanistan. Does public opinion play any role in American foreign policy, and what the public thinks?

MITT ROMNEY: The commander in chief also has to be the educator in chief and has to communicate to the American people why he is making the decisions he’s making. This president, in an inexplicable way, has not communicated to the American people what’s happening in Afghanistan, what the progress is, what the – what the challenges are, why the timetable is being evaluated as it is. This – in prior conflicts presidents have spoken to the American people about the men and women who are in harm’s way and the progress, or lack thereof as it might be, in war.

 I think we’ve heard too little from the president educating the American people as to what it is we’re doing in this wind-down period. Is there a wind down? Absolutely. We will be bringing all of our troops out. And when I say all, there will probably be some limited ongoing support for the Afghan security forces. But that – that’s a process the president should be explaining to the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do focus, in your remarks today, on President Obama; no mention of your Republican opponents. And yet, Gov. Huntsman is saying today that he is the one candidate in the Republican race who is uniquely qualified to know foreign policy and to deal with this complicated world.

MITT ROMNEY: Every candidate is going to express their views about why they’re the right one and I welcome the views of all, what, nine or 10 of us. We’ll each express our views. I express mine and the others will do the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But no – you don’t want to draw the contrast, though, with the others?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I believe I’m the only candidate at this stage that’s put out a foreign policy white paper and laid out a foreign policy speech. So it’s hard for me to draw a contrast with the others – (chuckles) – given the fact the others haven’t spoken yet upon their foreign policy perspectives, other than Ron Paul. And I think in the case of Ron Paul our differences are pretty straightforward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a mistake on their part?

MITT ROMNEY: They have their own calendar. I’m not running their campaigns. (Chuckles.) And I basically am following the calendar that we put together to have an opportunity to first put out a position paper on economics and how we get this economy going again – I did that a few weeks ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

There’s one candidate, I think, Gov. Perry, who still hasn’t put out an economic plan – no tax proposals, no regulatory proposals, no economic plan to get America working again. He’s been in the race for several weeks. So he’s following his own calendar and it’s – I think may be time to hear from him on an important issue like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I do want to ask you one or two other international-related questions.

Direct question on the Middle East, pretty much up or down. This administration and most Western countries criticized the recent announcement by the Israelis that they were going to continue to build more apartments in Jerusalem, saying this is counterproductive. Do you agree with that?

MITT ROMNEY: What I – what I believe is that when you have an ally that shares your values, as does Israel, that if you disagree with them, you do so in private. You don’t want to in any way encourage the adversaries of your ally to assume that perhaps they can get a better deal by going around Israel and negotiating with you directly. And so I think it is a mistake on the part of the president, as he did at – in his first address at the United Nations, to criticize Israel for building settlements and not mentioning that Hamas has launched thousands of rockets into Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well do you think it’s fine for – or do you think it’s all right, acceptable for Israel to build housing settlements in any of the areas that were occupied in the 1967 war?

MITT ROMNEY: Again, I would tell you that the role of a person running for president or a person who is president, in my view, is to stand by our ally and if we disagree do so in private. If I were to tell you that I disagreed I’d violate my own rule. And in this – in this case I believe that my opinions on Israel’s posture in negotiating with the Palestinians would be something I would keep to myself and to Bibi Netanyahu and leaders of the minority, Tzipi Livni, and others.

That’s something I would not share with the public. Instead, link arms with our allies and make sure that our public posture communicates our commitment to peace there. And recognize that some of the things Israel does, I’m sure, have negotiating elements to them and they do things from which they will strengthen their negotiating hand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So voters, you’re saying, don’t need to know what you think about this? Is that what you’re saying when you say it should be done in private?

MITT ROMNEY: I think in dealing with a ally like Israel that’s in a conflict with the Palestinians, where the two are, hopefully, at some point, going to negotiate progress there, that our job is not to tell Israel how to negotiate or how we would draw the line, but instead to publicly stand with Israel and to lock arms with Israel, not to show a dime’s worth of distance between us.

Now, other candidates may have different views. That happens to be my view: that in a setting of this nature, particularly one as fragile as Israel right now – I don’t think I’ve seen Israel in as fragile a setting as we’re seeing them today. And this is not a time for America to be – to be dictating to Israel how they should negotiate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple of other important international questions I want to raise just quickly. The European debt crisis. President Obama said yesterday this is presenting the greatest headwind, at this point, to an American economic recovery. There’s no question there is some connection. But as president, what would you do to see that the European debt crisis is resolved?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, it’s a European debt crisis and the Europeans are sovereign in their own nations. We can certainly offer information and perspective to them, acquaint their finance ministers with the best thinking of finance professionals in this country. We can look at the extent, in our nation, of the potential collateral damage that might be incurred here as a result of sovereign defaults or other kinds of disruptions in Europe.

But America is not going to dictate to Europe how they – (chuckles) – solve their financial crisis, although we can be supportive in terms of the communication of our perspectives and the experience we’ve had here in this country. We obviously went through a very similar threat with the failure of Lehman, and the experiences and lessons learned could potentially be of help to the people in Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I hate to put this as a quick question, but you did talk today about spending more on defense. You talked about adding 100,000 troops to the Army, building up the Navy, going back to a missile defense. The question is, the United States already spends more for defense than all the other countries of the world combined. How much bigger does the American defense budget need to get?

MITT ROMNEY: You know, I actually had the fun of writing a book and laying out an analysis of the spending going on in the world. And the figures are really not very helpful to assess – the public figures – to assess what’s really going on. China, for instance, pays their soldiers a heck of a lot less than we pay our soldiers. They have a conscription process and we have a volunteer military. And so we spend a lot more, but we don’t have a lot more members that are active-duty personnel, for instance. Their army is bigger than ours – or their active-duty personnel – for a much, much lower price.

So when you look at what they’re doing – China, for instance, alone – China alone is probably spending, on a comparable basis, about half as much as we do. And their interest is in a very narrow area; ours, and our missions, are global.

So do we spend substantially? Absolutely. What I believe is that roughly 20 percent of our federal spending should be devoted to our military defense, 20 percent of the total – of the total federal spending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is it today?

MITT ROMNEY: It’s higher than that today because of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. When those are completed, the president would bring that down to something well below 4 percent, or roughly this 20 percent figure of the total federal spend. I would hold military spending at 4 percent of the GDP, or roughly 20 percent of the federal budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you believe you could get popular support for that?

MITT ROMNEY: I believe – well, I’m running for president. And if people elect me, they will know they’re electing someone who would intend to devote roughly 20 percent of federal spending to the military, which equals approximately 4 percent of the total economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One question about the president’s jobs bill. You’ve made it clear you’re opposed to much of it. But I’m trying to figure out if there’s one area you could agree on, and that is on the payroll tax cut. Is that something that you could support, do you think, Gov. Romney?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, in a vacuum, it’s difficult to make an assessment on a particular element of the plan. The – a temporary tax cut of that nature is not going to create a lot of permanent jobs. Having spent my life in the private sector, I know that when you hire someone, you don’t just look at what the cost is this year; you look at the cost on a permanent basis. And so temporary tax cuts – saying we’re going to temporarily cut the payroll tax – would have very limited impact on job growth.

The problem with the president’s approach is that he continues to think that a stimulus is the answer. Look, we’ve tried stimuluses. They haven’t worked. This economy, after an $800 billion stimulus in his first year in office, is still over 8 percent unemployment, and that was the bogey he set. So stimulus doesn’t work.

What we need is a more fundamental restructuring of America’s economic foundation so that once again this becomes the most attractive place in the world for investment, for growth and for hiring. And right now, that’s not the case. And everything the president has done – almost without exception – has made America a less attractive place for people to invest and to hire other employees.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And another question connected to that. You obviously favor lower taxes, fewer government regulations. But if you talk to independent economists who look at the administration of President George W. Bush, and they say job growth, even with the tax cuts – income tax cuts – that he enacted, was not as great as it was in the previous decade. So is there evidence that you’re confident that jobs would grow if rates – income rates, income tax rates – come down and regulations go away?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I’m not calling for regulations to go away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, to be reduced.

MITT ROMNEY: I’m talking about bringing them up to date. Bring them up to date, make them modern. Let them be supportive of industry and growth. When the chief executive officer of Coca-Cola says the business environment in China is better than the business environment in the United States, you know you’ve got a problem.

And what that means is that at the margin, the businesses of America that have an option of either investing here and adding jobs here or going there and investing in there, they’ll go there. And what’s happening in this country is that we’ve made America – by virtue of our tax structure, we have the highest tax rate for employers in the world, tied with Japan. Our regulatory structure, it’s become overwhelming and burdensome. Our trade policies don’t work for us. Our energy policies are not working. These things have caused America to become less attractive for job growth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Let me move to just a couple of political questions.

Gov. Chris Christie made it clear this week that he is not going to run for president. The – what one is hearing is that this is your moment – this is the moment for you to consolidate your support and get Republicans behind you. You’re still running, what, about 25 percent, approximately, nationally among Republican voters. And what one hears when you talk to Republicans, there’s just not excitement yet about Mitt Romney. Is that excitement going to be essential for you to win the nomination, or not? What do you think?

MITT ROMNEY: You know, I looked at the crowd today – they were pretty excited – at the Citadel. I also can tell you, I looked back at the polls at this point four years ago, when I was running. I think I was at 9 percent and John McCain was even less than that. And the guys that were at the top had 20, 25 percent. I don’t recall a lot of stories being written about, boy, they need to consolidate their lead.

Look, at this early stage, you’ve got people who are trying to make up their mind because they’ve recognized we have got to replace Barack Obama if we’re going to keep America strong and get back to work. So I expect folks are going to take a long time getting to know each of the candidates, understanding our positions. And in the final moments, when we have our nominee selected, there’s going to be a lot of excitement around that nominee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final question. Conservatives in your party, many of them are still critical. We hear Michele Bachmann saying, don’t settle – don’t settle for somebody who’s not truly conservative. There’s this Tea Party group that’s out running “Stop Mitt Romney” ads, saying you’re too liberal on issues from abortion to the economy. Are these – is this a part of the party that you think you have to win over to win the nomination?

MITT ROMNEY: You know, my job is to tell people what I believe. And the fun of having written a book two years ago, by the way, is you can read all about my views about the economy, about foreign policy, even social issues I touch in the book that I wrote. So if people think I’m the right guy based upon those views, terrific. If they think someone else can do a better job, that’s fine too. I’m perfectly comfortable with letting the American people make their decision.

I think right now, with our country in economic distress, they want someone who understands the economy. With our nation facing extraordinary threats around the world, they want someone who has a very clear vision to make sure this is an American century with American leadership, and supremacy of America’s economy and our military.

I think that combination is what America wants right now. If I’m right, I’ll become president. If not, someone else will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a closing thought. The anti-Wall Street protests that have spread around the country, what do you – any identifying with their frustration? What do you think?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I think a lot of people recognize that there’s a great deal of frustration in this country. You’ve got millions and millions of Americans who can’t find work. People have stopped looking for work. People have got part-time jobs and need full-time employ. Home values have gone down dramatically. People are upset and angry, for good reason.

Maybe someone will primary Barack Obama. Look, he came in with a very different set of promises, and now, three years later, things are worse than he – than he had when he came in. I think even he’s admitted things are – people are worse off now. So of course they’re angry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Herman Cain said they’re un-American to be out there protesting like they are.

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, I think people have a right to express their views. I don’t know exactly whether or not there’s a coalesced of perspective yet from those that are – that are protesting. I can tell you that I think the president’s, if you will, divisive addresses – his haves verses the have-nots, the we versus they – that, I think, is a – is an unfortunate and potentially dangerous course to take. America is strong if we’re united.

We face great challenges. This isn’t a time for Americans to be attacking Americans. Of course we can express our views and protest our disappointment with various things. That’s part of our tradition and part of our heritage. But this isn’t a time for us to be, from the White House, attacking fellow Americans. Let’s pull together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Mitt Romney, we thank you very much for sitting down and talking with us.

MITT ROMNEY: Thanks, Judy.