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In the Face of GOP Criticism, Addressing Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenges

In Pueblo, Colo., and at the 2012 Global Clinton Initiative, Mitt Romney lambasted President Obama’s handling of foreign affairs after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Gwen Ifill talks to former U.S. ambassador Nicholas Burns and Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Hass for more on the president’s foreign policy.

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    And we return now to President Obama's United Nations speech and what it tells us about his administration's foreign policy challenges.

    For that, we turn to Harvard University professor and former U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Welcome, gentlemen. Welcome to you both.

    Starting with you, Richard Haass, let's take an overview. Is the Obama foreign policy defendable four years later?

    RICHARD HAASS, President, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, for sure it's defendable, which is not to say it's flawless.

    But, yes, he can point to obviously the killing of Osama bin Laden. He can point to, among other things, the attempt to improve relations with China and Russia. Obviously, he's got the United States out of Iraq. The United States, after going up, has now come down to some extent in Afghanistan.

    The Middle East, even though it's turbulent, is more open than it was. So I think the president in general can point to some areas where he moved forward and some areas obviously his critics will say where he moved back.

    But, all in all, it's a defensible and defendable record.


    Nick Burns, I want to walk through some of that piece by piece.

    But in reference — referencing the president's speech today, he turned over a big chunk of it to talking about the difference between railing against or speaking out against violence — violent extremism vs. protecting free speech.

    Why was so much devoted to that topic?

    NICHOLAS BURNS, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs: Well, Gwen, I thought it was an interesting speech, very reflective speech.

    And I think probably designed by the president and his advisers to try to heal some of the wounds that have been so apparent between the Muslim world and the United States over these last two weeks, these very tragic weeks.

    And I thought it was interesting the way he framed the issue. He clearly disassociated the United States from that hateful and vile video produced in California. And he twice spoke against — about the need to respect Islam and respect the Prophet of Islam.

    But at the same time, he spent a lot more time and was passionate about defending free speech and trying to explain to some of these world leaders in this hall the American traditions on free speech.

    And he used himself as an example. He said, in effect, I'm criticized every day — and people laughed in the hall — but I defend the right of those who criticize me.

    And he said, you know, if we begin to curb free speech, especially overseas, beyond America, that stifles dissidents. It stills their voices and it oppresses minorities.

    I thought it was a unique way of talking about freedom of speech. It was interesting that that was really, in many ways, the major focus of this speech.


    And, yet, Richard Haass, he seemed to also concede that there are tensions under the surfaces. This is not just about a video, tensions between the Arab world and the West, and not just the U.S.


    Absolutely. And there are.

    But I thought the important part of his message is not simply that we believe in free speech and, at the end of the day, it's impossible to filter everything that goes out of the Internet, but also it's the first responsibility of governments to control the mobs, to essentially — they have the obligation to keep diplomatic missions safe.

    And there's always going to be things that people aren't going to like. But, at the end of the day, people in these societies have to delegitimize violence.

    They have to essentially say, no matter how much you disagree with what someone says or writes, it doesn't give you the right to go out and cause violence.

    And, if they do, you, the governments, have to stop it. That's your obligation under various international charters under the United Nations. And I think that's an important message for the world to hear. It's an important message for the Egyptian government to hear.


    Nick Burns, let's talk about two particularly sticky wickets when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, and that's Iran and Syria.

    In both cases, in the speech today, he said, we need to speak out against it, whether it's Assad leaving or Syria stopping the slaughter of its own people. But he didn't outline exactly what the U.S. would do next about that. And that's what some of his critics have said he has come up short on.


    Well, it's a real problem for the president, because, you know, he's been trying to balance competing American interests since the beginning of the Arab revolutions in January of 2011.

    On the one hand, we have clearly supported reform and elections and democracy in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and with NATO force in Libya.

    But on the other hand, the president has clearly decided that it's not possible now for the United States to be intervening the Syria. It's an entirely different set of problems there for the United States.

    And he also has a divided Security Council in New York. The Russians and Chinese will not support any overt move to aid the rebels or to intervene militarily by the United States.

    So, what he had today was rhetoric. He called against for Bashar al-Assad to leave power, but there's really nothing behind that.

    And his administration has decided not even to arm the rebels. So he's been criticized for that by some people. He's been lauded by others who believe that intervention would be a mistake. But it's clearly a source of frustration for the administration.


    Richard Haass, is there a way out of that frustration, or is it just a place where only rhetoric can serve?


    Well, Ambassador Burns correctly said there's a gap between American goals, which is to see the regime and leadership go, and American means, which are quite, quite, quite limited.

    The United States could do more to help the opposition. That's probably the main realistic avenue for policy to narrow the gap. But even that doesn't necessarily close it.

    So, it's quite possible in two months or four months or six months, Bashar al-Assad will still be in power and thousands more Syrians will be dead.

    And I don't think there's a lot we can do unless we're willing to go in. And even if we did go in, it could be very difficult.

    And what we can't ensure is that we could put something into place that would last that would be demonstrably better. It's the problem with these humanitarian interventions.


    How about this — the issue, Richard Haass, involving Israel? There have been a lot of tensions there as well. And the president made — went out of his way to say we shouldn't endorse the desecration of Mohammed, any more than we should endorse the deniers of the Holocaust, and linking that in common cause.

    Did that go a long way toward mollifying some of that tension?


    Well, I thought that was a good point. He also talked about the need for a secure Jewish state, something that would be well-received in Israel. At the same time, he called for a separate, prosperous Palestinian state.

    But I think the main issue for the Israelis is the question of Iran.

    And there, the most interesting thing of what the president said was the idea that the Iranians don't have unlimited amounts of time in order to see these negotiations play out.

    The United States is not prepared to see them use the negotiations as a stalling tactic behind which they could continue to enrich uranium and get closer to a nuclear weapon.

    So, I think what the president did was set is stage for a debate that will come, which is how much time is enough to give negotiations a chance, but not too much so the Iranians essentially use them to create facts in the way of their nuclear program.

    My sense, Gwen, is that is going to become the real area of focus for whoever wins this election.


    Nicholas Burns, did you see any movement in the president's speech on that point?


    I thought the president was speaking clearly to the Iranian government and the Iranian people. He was in effect warning them that we just can't go on and on with Iranian obstreperousness at the negotiating table.

    He clearly came down, Gwen, on the side of diplomacy and negotiations backed up by sanctions and the threat of force.

    He clearly wants this problem to be kicked into 2013, and I think rightly so. I would anticipate, if he is reelected, some kind of negotiation with the Iranians.

    But then the president said clearly today containment won't work. And he clearly signaled he's ready to use force if necessary.

    If I were the Iranian leadership, I would take that as a clear warning shot from a president who has got a lot of support in that hall internationally, and I think a lot of support here at home that we ought to try to diplomacy before we consider force.


    I have to ask you before you go, all of this, of course, is against the backdrop of a political campaign, Nicholas Burns.

    And Mitt Romney has been out in the last day or two. And he's been saying, among other things, that the president treats all of these setbacks as bumps in the road and he's not taking this seriously and he's lacking in leadership.

    What would be different, based on what we have heard him say, about what a President Romney would do on these issues?


    Well, if you listen to the Romney Campaign and to Gov. Romney himself, he seems to have a more Marshall approach to international affairs.

    He seems to think that maybe by leading with military force, by being more bold on the international stage, America can be defended better.

    But I think that Governor Romney has not been able to articulate a compelling vision of how he would actually strengthen America. He's been vague about when he would get us out of Afghanistan and I think, frankly, has not really spoken very clearly about how he really differs from President Obama on Iran.

    I suspect their two positions are fairly close, actually.


    Richard Haass, on the same point?


    I actually think there is a difference on Iran.

    The president is clearly saying that Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. What Gov. Romney has been is a little bit stricter, that they can't be allowed any enriched material.

    And, clearly, he wants to stop Iran somewhere short of a nuclear weapon. And I think again that's going to be part of the debate. What is it we can tolerate?

    But can I make another point for a second, Gwen?

    Amidst all the sound bites of the campaign, I actually thought today was a good day. The president gave a serious speech at the United Nations, sending some important messages to the Middle East.

    He also gave a serious speech at the Clinton Global Initiative about the importance of stopping human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

    At the same time, Gov. Romney I thought gave his most thoughtful speech of the campaign about foreign policy, about foreign aid, about foreign economic policy, the importance of introducing market incentives into our foreign economic policy.

    So, all in all after, all the sound bites, after all the negative clips, today was a thoughtful, positive day for American politics.

    And wherever you come out in the political process, I actually thought it was again the best day of the campaign season.


    Always good to have a thoughtful, positive day.

    Richard Haass, president for the Council of Foreign Relations, Nicholas Burns, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, at Harvard Kennedy School, thank you both so much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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