With a civil war in Syria destabilizing the Middle East, the two candidates for US Senate in Massachusetts offer strongly different stances on United States foreign policy, positions that illustrate distinctive philosophies of what role the country should play in the world.
US Representative Edward J. Markey said he believes that addressing “poverty, injustice, hunger, disease, climate change” and other development issues abroad should be an essential part of US foreign policy, alongside diplomacy and defense.
Gabriel E. Gomez, a former Navy SEAL, describes a more narrowly focused view of the country’s role in the world, emphasizing support for allies and pressure on enemies.
“We can’t be the police force all over the world,” he said. “But we got to make sure that we support our allies.”
In Syria, which is mired in a bloody civil war that began more than two years ago when President Bashar Assad cracked down on protesters, the United States faces a hard choice about how deeply to get involved. Gomez supports US military involvement to create a no-fly zone over the country that he hopes would hamper Assad’s fight against rebel forces. Markey opposes a no-fly zone, saying the United States needs to be extremely cautious before involving itself in the war there.
Their positions are also somewhat at odds on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Syria’s south.
Gomez blames both Israelis and Palestinians for the long impasse in the creation of an indelible Middle East peace. Markey repeatedly declined to fault Israel, instead arguing that Palestinians have missed multiple opportunities to negotiate a long-term settlement.
The winner of the June 25 election will succeed John F. Kerry, who resigned his Senate seat to become secretary of state. The new senator will have an ability to help shape the country’s foreign policy and the constitutional prerogative to vote on treaties and ambassadors.
Both candidates sat down with the Globe in recent days for lengthy interviews on foreign policy.
Markey, who has served in Congress for almost 37 years, but has largely focused on domestic and homeland security policy, nonetheless appeared fluent with details of foreign affairs, comfortable with the historical context of world conflicts. He praised President Obama’s approach in several current hot spots.
At moments, Gomez appeared less at ease with some of the nuances of world politics. He repeatedly referred to his service in the military, using it as a prism through which he views unrest in the Middle East.
While Gomez did not criticize President Obama’s overall foreign policy agenda, he said Kerry and President Obama “are too focused right now on the Israeli peace process.”
“You have Syria and Iran right now, where I think there should be more focus,” he said.
But some foreign policy specialists said Gomez’s assessment was off the mark.
Imposing a US no-fly zone over Syria ‘could pull us into a direct military conflict with Syria.’
Aaron David Miller, a former longtime State Department adviser on Middle East issues, who counseled both Democratic and Republican administrations, said he thought the opposite was true.
Kerry is “spending plenty of time on Syria,” Miller said. “Kerry is working, I would argue, at the expense of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” to focus on the conflict in Syria.
James F. Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq under Obama and deputy national security adviser in George W. Bush’s administration also said he disagreed with Gomez’s take. “Kerry can chew gum and walk at the same time,” Jeffrey said.
In the interview with Gomez, which took place at a crowded Irish pub, the Cohasset military veteran repeatedly said there would be an extremely high bar for him to authorize the president to use military force abroad. “Committing troops has to be the absolutely last resort, ever,” he said, repeating a line he has used often on the campaign trail and in debates.
But on Syria and Iran, Gomez positioned himself more hawkishly than Markey.
Gomez said US troops ought to be used to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, even without approval from the United Nations.
“I wouldn’t wait for the UN, because that could take a long time,” he said after a debate with Markey on Wednesday.
In the interview last week, Gomez admitted that committing US air assets to the region could result in American casualties. He said any military effort there would be “for the security of the United States because a weaker Syria is going to be a weaker Iran.”
“Syria is, literally, Iran’s best friend,” Gomez said.
Markey said he supports a diplomatic approach as a way to “restrict the spread of the chaos into other countries,” but opposes a no-fly zone over Syria, given the current circumstances on the ground there. American involvement in a no-fly zone, he said, “could pull us into a direct military conflict with Syria and into the middle of a civil war.”
In Iran, Gomez said he would authorize the president to use military force to stop the regime there from getting a nuclear weapon, but only “as a very last resort.”
Markey, in an interview this week in a Boston hotel lobby, was more guarded about whether there were circumstances under which he would support military action against Iran.
“We have to move through this stage by stage,” Markey said.
Markey said he supported President Obama and Kerry’s efforts to pressure Iran through sanctions.
“The president intends on denying Iran a nuclear weapon and he has built a powerful coalition to squeeze the Iranian economy and its political system,” Markey said, his hands clenched in a demonstration of the pressure.
Pressed if there were circumstances where he would support military intervention against Iran, he said: “We are not there yet.”
On the question of how to deal with a belligerent North Korea, both candidates praised the president’s strategy of diplomacy, combined with a recent show of force in support of South Korea.
And in regard to American involvement in Afghanistan, Markey said the US mission in that troubled country had been “completed.” Gomez disagreed, but said America should “be drawing down our troops” there.
Both Gomez and Markey said they were open to the United States using military action solely for humanitarian purposes, but set the bar high.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both candidates expressed strong support for Israel. Each said he supported a two-state solution. And, despite the long impasse on a peace agreement, both said they believe a two-state solution remains feasible. But the candidates split on who holds blame for the continued failure of the peace process.
“Obviously, there’s culpability on both sides,” Gomez said. “Neither one of them has been perfect in the peace process, I’ll put it that way.”
Pressed three times if Israel had any blame at all for the peace process not moving forward, Markey only assigned fault to the Palestinians. “The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” he asserted.
Asked if Obama has missed the mark on any areas of foreign policy during his tenure as commander in chief, Markey took a long, deliberate pause.
He finally said he hoped the president would change his mind about committing to build “a new generation of nuclear warheads.”Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.