Experts In International Relations Assess Debate

Steve Inskeep talks with Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute and Vali Nasr, a former adviser to the Obama administration and dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, about Monday night's presidential debate focused on foreign policy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Let's hear last night's presidential debate as it sounds from two strong points of view. We've asked each to choose a meaningful moment from the debate and both will discuss them.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr is a scholar of the Muslim world and a former adviser to the Obama administration.

Good morning. Welcome.

VALI NASR: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And Danielle Pletka is a vice president of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Welcome to you.

DANIELLE PLETKA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And, Danielle, let's start with something that you wanted to discuss, here. The candidates last night debated sequestration. That's a budget-cutting measure supposed to take effect at the end of the year that would cut the government across the board, including the military. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts that the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is making our future less certain and less secure. I won't do it.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Bob, I just need to comment on this. First of all, the sequester is not something that I proposed. It's something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.

INSKEEP: Danielle Pletka, the president says sequestration is not going to happen. What bothers you about that?

PLETKA: Well, it's really kind of a blithe assertion with no facts behind it. He's shown almost no leadership on the sequestration issue, which is an automatic $500 billion cut to our defense budget that's going to be put in place as of January if the Congress doesn't specifically do something to reverse it. Now, the president's made very clear that he's not that interested in them reversing it unless they do things that he wants them to do. So I'm not quite sure where he got that not going to happen.

INSKEEP: I'm curious, though, Mitt Romney spoke of reducing the great - the great importance of reducing the debt. And within a few seconds was talking about ending this sequestration, which is the one thing Congress has passed that would actually reduce the debt. Is there a contradiction there?

PLETKA: Well, first of all, it's not the one thing that Congress has passed that would reduce the debt, because sequestration was part of this rather stupid deal that Congress cut last year when it couldn't come to an agreement about budget cutting. And that was 500 billion cut on the entitlement side and 500 billion cut on the defense side.

Unfortunately, the slices of the pie are quite different. Five hundred billions dollars out of defense is a substantial sum. Five hundred billion dollars, unfortunately, is not a substantial sum out of our growing entitlements.

I think that what Romney recognized, rightly, is that the problem for the U.S. budget is not in our defense spending. It's in our growth of entitlements, the explosion of entitlements in the coming years.

INSKEEP: When you say entitlements, I think we're talking about discretionary spending in many cases. Let's let Vali Nasr get into this.

Vali, what are you thinking?

NASR: Well, I think a lot of American power projection abroad has been connected to its financial capabilities to provide aid, trade and also to put on the world stage a strong military presence. I think this debate about debt in the United States create a perception on the outside that American power and its potential is not certain. And that does create a certain kind of a dynamic internationally, in particularly talk of automatic reduction of American military spending, American ability to support foreign aid, give money around the world, does create uncertainty.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's move on to another thing. Vali Nasr, you chose a statement by Mitt Romney about Iran, his proposal to push on Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I'd take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I'd make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the genocide convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world - the same we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

INSKEEP: Indicting the president of Iran, what would that do?

NASR: Not much. First of all, he's not going to be president of Iran after one year from now. And we've seen that this kind of a measure, as we did with Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, has not really made a difference in policy that those countries have followed. And thirdly, that it might actually make it more difficult to get engaged on a diplomatic front. If you're not doing military confrontation, if you're putting pressure on them to come to the table, you ultimately will have to engage them. And that might not be helpful.

INSKEEP: A lot of commentators have said that Romney has ended up in the same places, though, as President Obama on how to approach Iran. Is that correct?

NASR: I think that's correct. I think both of them said last night that military option is the last resort. Neither one was prepared to expand a diplomatic scenario of talking to Iran. So that leaves them essentially with the same thing, which is putting pressure on Iran through sanctions or through isolation. So the only way they could differentiate one from the other was to, you know, put on the table issues like we're going to indict Ahmadinejad. But essentially it's the same policy.

INSKEEP: Danielle Pletka, you get the last word here, about 30 seconds. Is there a strong difference between these candidates on how to approach Iran now?

PLETKA: I think that one of the most important points that Governor Romney made was his suggestion that it was Congress that had to force the president into the toughest sanctions we've seen yet on the Iranian National Oil Company. They had to force the president into it. He wasn't willing to do it. He objected to the legislation. And so, no. Not a big fan of the whole indict Ahmadinejad thing.

On the other hand, the president really hasn't been as tough on sanctions as he could have been. And I thought Romney made that point quite well.

INSKEEP: Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, thanks very much.

PLETKA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And thanks also to Vali Nasr, formerly of the Obama administration. He's a scholar of the Muslim world. Thanks for coming in.

NASR: Thank you.

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