Advisers' Debate

Fecklessness Vs. Flip-Flop

Ahead of the presidential candidate’s foreign policy debate later this month, surrogates from the Romney and Obama campaigns sparred over national security issues in Washington on Wednesday. Both Richard Verma and Dov Zakheim, who serve as national security advisers to President Obama and Mitt Romney, respectively, had choice words about the Middle East, particularly Iran.

Zakheim alluded to the fact that both candidates remain convinced military action is not the best way to deter Iran. But he slammed the Obama administration’s policy of exempting countries from Iran oil sanctions and said that when Iranians see the U.S. giving other countries the go-ahead to import oil from Iran, they see “weakness.”

“How can you be credible about sanctions when you let countries off the hook?” he said. “This administration is wonderful with words, but when it comes to action, we undermine ourselves.”

The former undersecretary of defense also referred to recent intelligence failures such as the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens as cautionary tales.

“Even if we do get it [intelligence on Iran], that doesn’t mean we’ll pay attention to it,” he said of the current administration.

Verma responded by emphasizing that Romney’s preference to go it alone on sanctions without asking for cooperation from U.S. allies is shortsighted. He added that Romney’s position on Iran, as is the case with other issues, changes constantly.

“Governor Romney’s foreign policy positions—and there are many—can be tough to follow if you don’t keep close track,” he said.

The surrogates also took turns taking jabs at the candidates’ positions on Israel. Verma pointed out that Romney’s recent promise to “recommit America to the goal of a prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.” That aim contrasts sharply to remarks he made at a fundraiser in May about the dedication of Palestinians to the “destruction and elimination of Israel” and the lack of prospects for peace.

“To call that a flip or a flop would be charitable,” Verma said.

Zakheim, on the other hand, drew attention to President Obama’s hot-mic moment at the G-20 summit in 2011, when he was overheard exclaiming that he was "fed up" with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and also chastised the President for describing the Israeli pressure to draw a red line for Iran as “noise.” Furthermore, he added, the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia is doomed to decrease U.S. influence and credibility in the Middle East in general.

Many, including former State Department adviser Aaron David Miller, are not convinced that either candidate would change the U.S.-Israel relationship much. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has noted that Romney’s stance on Iran is “almost identical” to that of Obama.

But, in campaigns, rhetoric can matter more than policy positions. Though it’s unlikely either candidate will provide new insight into their positions on Israel and Iran before November, the attacks could still matter on election day.