Mitt Romney meets with Peres - AP - July 29, 2012
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney meets with Israel's President Shimon Peres, in Jerusalem, July 29, 2012. Photo by AP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Jerusalem July 29, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers remarks about the shooting in Colorado in New Hampshire. Photo by Reuters

LONDON – The man sitting on the other side of the table may be the president of the United States next year. According to the most recent public opinion polls, his chances are almost 50-50. But in the midst of the major campaign for Ohio, Florida and Virginia, Mitt Romney abandoned everything in order to spend a few days in England, Poland and Israel. That’s why he is now sitting in a steamy room in one of the historic buildings in the Tower of London compound. That’s why he is devoting half an hour of his time to me, removing his jacket and shaking my hand, and giving me a big smile. He says a few words about the surprising heat in England, asks what’s going on in Israel. He radiates old-fashioned American warmth.

But when the recording device is turned on, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate immediately becomes tense. He is careful not to say anything superfluous. He refrains from making any commitments. Like a diligent student at an oral exam, he carefully weighs every word he is about to utter. But the interviewee is even more focused on what he is not allowed to say than on what he is about to say.

He is not allowed to say how he loathes U.S. President Barack Obama. He is not allowed to say that he thinks Obama has pulled America down into the depths. He is not allowed to express his concern over what he sees as America’s domination by un-American ideas.

Although Romney sees himself as the next Ronald Reagan, who has come to save his homeland from the hands of a failed Jimmy Carter, he lacks Reagan’s passion. Nor does he have Reagan’s maturity and sense of mission. The former governor of Massachusetts is an intelligent, professional and good-hearted businessman, but he lacks charisma. If a fire is burning in his bones, he hides it well.

Big drama. This time the debate is over the decline of America and the battle is over America’s identity. For old America, the 2012 elections may be the last chance to reclaim the hegemony; for liberal America, the 2012 elections constitute an attempt by benighted forces to run a vapid candidate against the progress represented by Obama. The former regard the latter as Americans who have deviated from the path, and the latter regard the former as fanatics and racists who want to turn back the clock. Because the two forces are colliding with intensity and violence, the election campaign is expensive and polluted. The two Americas wrestling in the arena are beating each other to a pulp.

The man sitting opposite me is a very surprising candidate for the role of the Great White Hope. For most Republican voters, he is too rich, too liberal and too reserved. He is also a Mormon. So what Mitt Romney has to do now is to ensure that the elections won’t be about him, but about Obama. That the elections will be a national referendum about the economy and about Obama’s worldview. Only by being anti-Obama does the elitist from Boston have a chance to win the votes of conservative Southern Evangelists who don’t really like him. Will he succeed? Does he have what it takes?

When I observe the tall, handsome man who is answering my questions so cautiously, I have a feeling that the drama surrounding him is even bigger than he is.

Governor Romney, President Obama gave his formative foreign policy speech in Cairo in June 2009. It was basically about appeasing Islam. Should you be elected president, where will you hold your formative speech and what would it say? What would be the fundamental values and principles of Romney’s America in the international arena and how will they differ from Obama’s?

“I don’t have a current plan for where my first address related to foreign policy might be, if I am lucky enough to be elected president. But my objective will be to describe a foreign policy that shows confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in the application of our might. I believe that over the centuries this nation wisely had a great deal of confidence that our cause was just and that the endeavors we undertook were for good purposes. The clarity of our purpose was described to our citizens and people around the world. When we applied our military might, it was with resolve to be successful and to fulfill a mission. I hope that I will be able to maintain that tradition and that these principles can be applied in today’s world.

“Because we are on foreign soil, I will refrain in this interview from being critical of the president or open[ing] up new avenues of foreign policy that might be seen to be in contradiction to that of the current government. That being said, I have spoken many times about my view that this coming century must remain an American century. By that I mean that America should maintain the moral, economic and military leadership that will allow it to remain the leader of the free world and insure that the free world remains the leader of the entire world.”

Throughout the world and in the Middle East as well, America’s allies feel that the U.S. is not as strong as it was and that it does not stand by its friends as it used to. Do you share this notion and how are you going to address it?

“I can tell you that it is my firm belief that it is a benefit to my country and the world to show our friends and allies that it’s better to be a friend than a foe. To stand by our friends at all times and particularly when a friend is in great peril. Secure commitments to values and allies formed our sphere of influence over the past years, and so it should be in the future.”

Governor Romney, when you arrive in our region, you will find that what is on everybody’s minds − Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Turks, Israelis − is the fear of Iran going nuclear. As president, would you prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, whatever it takes?

“I have said in the past and I can reiterate now that it is essential that Iran does not become nuclear. A nuclear Iran represents the greatest threat to the world, to the United States and to the very existence of Israel. A nuclear Iran would mean that Hezbollah or other actors would potentially someday be able to secure fissile materials which would threaten the world. Five years ago I spoke at the Herzliya Conference and I laid out seven steps that I felt were necessary to keep Iran from becoming nuclear. These included crippling sanctions, indicting [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide, standing for voices of dissent within Iran, and developing reliable military options were they the last resort that had to be exercised. I continue to believe that these principles are vital, and are perhaps more urgent today.”

Would you support regime change in Iran? If the Iranians should rise against Ahmadinejad as they did in June 2009 − would you stand by them?

“America is wise to stand by people seeking freedom − particularly in nations that regularly chant ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel.’”

We are wise to listen to the words people say because, frightful as these words may be, history proves thatsometimes they are carried out.

“If there are voices for change and hearts yearning for freedom, America will stand by them.”

But time is running out. Engagement failed, sanctions have not yet worked, regime change has not yet occurred. Therefore we find ourselves in a dramatic situation: Iran has enriched uranium for five to six bombs, and is only a year away from the ability to produce a first bomb. It might be that by now the only option is the military one. Should it be considered and employed?

“I think I made it clear in my address in Herzliya [in January 2007] that a military option is by far the least attractive option, but it should not be ruled out. The military option should be evaluated and available if no other course is successful.”

Senator John McCain said some time ago that there is one thing worse than a military attack on Iran and that’s a nuclear Iran. Do you agree?

“President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.

"I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capablity."

Some fear that America has lost it. After the traumas of Afghanistan and Iraq and the financial crisis, it does not have the stamina needed to deal with the Iranian challenge. When faced with the ultimate dilemma, it will choose containment. It will live with a nuclear Iran just as it lives with a nuclear North Korea.

“I think there is recognition in America that a nuclear Iran is different than North Korea. Both are very dangerous and destructive. We know North Korea has been ... providing nuclear technology to Syria. That being said, a nuclear Iran will certainly usher in a period of nuclearization throughout the region. Given the fact that Iran is the leading sponsor of terror and has various surrogates such as Hezbollah ... one is concerned that fissile material may fall into the hands of a group like Hezbollah, which is now on the ground in Latin America. That could affect not only our friends around the world but actually our own country. We are weary of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the majority of the American people recognize that Iran is of a different character.”

In the past you said there is some truth in the statement that President Obama − unintentionally − is pushing Israel to war because it feels so desperate. Is this still true?

“I don’t want to make any comment about the president.”

‘Butcher in Damascus’

So let me ask you about your friend Benjamin Netanyahu. He feels it’s 1938 all over again. Like in the 1930s, the West fails to rise to a historic challenge. Like in the 1930s, the Jewish people are in jeopardy. The combination of an unconventional regime with unconventional weapons is disastrous. Hence, Netanyahu might feel he must strike. Were this to happen, what should be the American reaction?

“I cannot speak for the president and for the nation. But as allies and nations that share profound values, we will work very closely together to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear. We will employ every means short of military power. We recognize that if all means are exhausted and fail, a military option will have to be considered.”

As you are so close, would you say to the prime minister: Bibi, relax, you can trust America. America will eventually deal with Iran. Don’t do anything hasty.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu always has to do what he feels is in the best interests of his own nation. I know that our nation will always feel the same about ours.”

Iran is the important regional issue, but Syria is the more urgent one. If chemical weapons fall into the hands of Hezbollah or jihadist organizations, should America intervene and take military action?

“I think it is important for the responsible nations of the world to seek to understand which forces in Syria represent real change, rather than the kind of destruction that might occur if Al-Qaida were to seize the development of chaos and assert leadership in some significant way in Syria. I would hope that nations like Turkey and Saudi Arabia and others would identify responsible voices of dissent within Syria, provide them with the arms they might need to protect themselves and further their cause. We must do our best to prevent the most radical Al-Qaida or Al-Qaida-like Jihadists from trying to secure a role in the reshaping of a new Syria.”

Are you not appalled by the fact that the international community is so impotent in dealing with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s atrocities? Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is actually supporting and arming a war criminal who’s butchering his own people − and gets away with it.

“I was very disappointed with the vote of condemnation at the United Nations being vetoed by Russia and China. I was appalled at the decision by Russia as reported in the media to provide attack helicopters and other armaments to the ‘Butcher in Damascus.’ The world looks with horror at the devastation being caused by Assad.”

Coming closer to the country you are about to visit: Are Israel’s settlements legal or illegal? Should Israel build more of them or dismantle them?

“I am afraid that any discussion of settlements would lead me into waters of showing a distance between me and the president. That will not be appropriate for me to do while on foreign soil.”

Do you support the two-state solution? Do you think that a Palestinian state should be established?

“I believe in a two-state solution which suggests there will be two states, including a Jewish state. I respect Israel’s right to remain a Jewish state. The question is not whether the people of the region believe that there should be a Palestinian state. The question is if they believe there should be an Israeli state, a Jewish state.”

'Time of turmoil’

Facing Putin’s aggressive policies, China’s rise and radical Islamic threats − did President Obama really lead from behind?

“I have got no comment on President Obama.”

Obviously, you will not repeat now what you said not long ago − that the president ‘threw Israel under the bus.’ But would you say in a positive manner that Israel should not be thrown under the bus?

“In a time of turmoil and peril in Israel’s neighborhood, it is important that the security of America’s commitments to Israel will be as clear as humanly possible. When Israel feels less secure in the neighborhood, it should feel more secure of the commitment of the United States to its defense.”

Isn’t it in everybody’s interest that there be some daylight and distance between the two countries?

“I believe that with regards to our allies, we are always wiser to lock arms and to stand as one for the world to see. There will be, of course, times of disagreement and disparity in our respective interests − but those we are best in keeping to ourselves, in private.

 "If I will be president, there will be no confrontations between our nations  before international institutions.there will be no public denouncing of Israel by the U.S. in the UN. Israel's friendly and unfriendly neighbors will know we stand with you. I believe that is the real way to achieve peace-by working with Israel, not creating distance between Israel and America."

Why Israel? Why now? What is the statement you are making in this critical time by traveling specifically to the U.K., Poland and Israel?

“The purpose of my trip is to listen and to learn. I do want to hear from individuals who are in places of strategic significance, who share our values and who have perspectives of significance relating to the tumultuous events throughout the world."

Governor Romney, you’ll be arriving in Jerusalem on Saturday night, on the eve of the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Many Israelis feel that the fate of the ‘Third Temple’ relies on its strong bond with a strong America. Can you assure them that should you be president, you will reverse the trend of American decline? Can you guarantee that both America, and Israel’s bond with America, will be strong once again?

“American strength is an ally for peace, unparalleled in world history. We must strengthen America through strong values, a stronger economy and a military that is second to none. I believe that our friends and allies support our strength by linking with us. We in turn reinforce them as they face various foes that seek to weaken them.”

Apart from the question of America and Israel, there is the question of Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu. Is the special friendship between the two of you a political asset or a political liability?

“I have no idea what political impact it has, but nevertheless, this is a personally rewarding relationship which he and I will share, win or lose. I am no more involved in your politics than he is in ours. But I respect him, I respect the strength of his character and I respect the clarity with which he speaks. I believe strong leadership is always the best defense.”

If I may ask, Mr. Governor, does the Holy Land, to which you’re heading now, evoke religious feelings in you?

“As I run for political office, my policies are not shaped by my religious feelings. That being said, I have grown up in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I have read and studied what my faith refers to as the Old and New Testaments. I’ve been on a boat in the Sea of Galilee. I’ve been to the Garden Tomb and other sites which I deem as having religious significance. Yes, for me Jerusalem and Israel are places of divine significance.”

One small question as we end this interview. Will you win on November 6? Will Mitt Romney be America’s 45th president?

“I certainly hope so.”