WASHINGTON - Last November, Mitt Romney rejected calls for the United States to back a no-fly zone and havens to help rebels in Syria, saying that nation’s government “is not bombing its people, at this point, and the right course is not military.’’
Today, those words have put Romney in an awkward position on what has become one of the most divisive foreign policy issues in the presidential campaign.
He now says Syrians are facing a “military onslaught’’ from their government, calls on the United States to facilitate arming the rebels, and blasts what he calls President Obama’s failure to act. Yet Romney continues to oppose the creation of no-fly zones and rebel havens, rejecting pleas from Senator John S. McCain and others who said measures such as no-fly zones are essential to protect the rebels.
The Obama administration has called for Syrian leader Bashar Assad to leave and for a “managed transition’’ that would be designed to prevent civil war and to protect the interests of all Syrians. The administration has opposed Romney’s suggestion to arm the opposition, fearing that rebels are disunited and that weapons might fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or be used in a sectarian bloodbath. The administration has agreed with Romney in rejecting suggestions for a no-fly zone, in part because Syria has more robust air defense capabilities than did Libya, where Obama supported no-fly zones.
A spokesman said the Obama campaign would not comment on Romney’s Syria policy. But Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, scoffed at Romney’s proposal in a recent appearance on MSNBC. “For those who are advocating arming the opposition, they really ought to consider the consequences of that approach. And also to ask frankly, who are they arming inside of the Syrian opposition?. . . There are some extremist elements mixed in there.’’
Romney’s prescription remains a work in progress. In his broadest statement on the matter, he said during a November Republican presidential debate that he rejected proposals for a no-fly zone, although he said that “maybe’’ there should be a no-drive zone, and he has opposed calls for havens. He has stuck to those positions in the following months, while announcing his support for arming the opposition with help from other countries.
McCain, in an interview Monday, said that he has not had an opportunity to talk to Romney in an effort to persuade him to support no-fly zones or havens. McCain acknowledged the differences between himself and Romney but sought to keep the focus on what he called Obama’s lack of action.
“I want [Romney] to do what he thinks is best. I’m not running his campaign. I am pleased that he wants to arm the opposition and I intend to have further conversations with him, but we are not going to have a fight about that,’’ McCain said. “This president is shameful. That’s what the story is, not that there’s differences between me and Romney.’’
Romney’s decision to walk more cautiously on the issue than McCain has highlighted his difficulty of trying to turn a still-developing military issue to his advantage. His call to arm the opposition has raised questions about whether he would support sending US arms via a third country, and how he would ensure that the arms stay in the hands of those friendly to the United States.
Theodore Kattouf, who served as US ambassador to Syria during the George W. Bush administration, said the Obama administration is right to act cautiously, and he urged Romney to do the same.
“The law of unintended consequences seems to be almost constitutionally writ in the Middle East,’’ Kattouf said. If the rebels are victorious, “what do you do the day after? Who is going to ensure that the very opposition that has been butchered by . . . regime instruments will not turn around and do the same thing to minorities. We have seen this movie in Iraq, for God’s sakes. Sectarian feelings are running very high. Who is going to rebuild things? Where does the money come from?’’
Romney declined an interview request. One of his top foreign policy advisers, former assistant secretary of state Richard Williamson, confirmed in an interview that Romney has “not taken the next step’’ proposed by McCain and others “with respect to no-fly zones and safe havens.’’ Instead, Williamson said, Romney wants to work closely with allies to help arm the opposition.
Williamson said Romney blames Obama for letting the situation in Syria grow into a full-blown crisis that could have repercussions across the region.
But Republicans are not united on what to do in Syria. Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has distanced himself from Romney’s proposal to arm the opposition. “We’re just not exactly sure who the bad guys are, who the good guys are, so you don’t know who you’re giving weapons to,’’ Rogers said recently on CNN.
Romney’s views also may diverge from those of John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, who is considered among Romney’s most influential and hawkish advisers. Bolton wrote an essay for the June 25 issue of the conservative National Review magazine in which he both called for action in Syria but laid out the dangers of arming an opposition group that might not prove trustworthy.
Without mentioning Romney’s call to arm the opposition, Bolton wrote: “In truth, we do not know enough about the opposition’s political or military leadership (which currently, at least, appears confused and divided) to predict who would prevail in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s overthrow. In such circumstances, the risk of a radical Islamist regime’s replacing Assad is considerably higher than it would have been if we had moved to oust him years ago.’’
Moreover, Bolton wrote, the situation has grown so bad that sending US military assistance now will not “advance legitimate American interests.’’ Still, he left open the possibility that weapons could go to “truly secular’’ members of the opposition.
Bolton could not be reached for comment and the Romney campaign declined to respond on the record to a question about whether Bolton’s view represented the candidate’s policy.
The fighting in Syria has become so intense that a United Nations observer mission pulled out of the country last weekend, underscoring the failure of a UN peace plan. Syrian rebels are believed to have received some arms from outside sources via Turkey but remain overmatched by Assad’s military.
Further complicating the situation, Russia announced Monday it was sending two ships to a Syrian port to protect Russian interests there. That follows a charge by the Obama administration that Russia has sent refurbished helicopter gunships to Syria.
Obama on Monday held talks about Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a conference in Mexico and said afterward that the two “agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war,’’ but concrete steps to make that happen were not outlined.Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish.