June 16, 2014

David Gregory Grills Mitt Romney As If He’s Just Become President

The people at NBC who are agonizing over David Gregory’s ongoing audience freefall at his Meet the Press perch need only look at the first half of his interview with 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to see why it’s happening.

Gregory basically refused to acknowledge the existence of Romney’s core argument, which is essentially that he wouldn’t have done what President Obama did in withdrawing from Iraq so hastily and leaving things to run on auto-pilot. Instead, he insisted on sticking with a “Well, what would do now?” line of questioning, even though, as Romney indicated, he doesn’t have access to intelligence briefings necessary to assert an informed opinion. When that didn’t work, he tried to hold Romney to a stale 2007 quote from when conditions were obviously very different. The fact is that wouldn’t be facing the present quandary if Obama hadn’t acted directly against the (often privately expressed) desires of Iraqi leaders and U.S. intelligence officials to maintain at least a significant advisory presence there. Video and a transcript of the Iraq-related portion of the interview follow the jump (bolds and numbered tags are mine):

Transcript (from after opening niceties through the end of the Iraq discussion):

DAVID GREGORY: … I want to start with this crisis in Iraq. You’ve been critical of President Obama and his administration. I’ll ask you directly now. I think a lot of Americans are asking this question. What is worth fighting for in Iraq today?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, what we’re fighting for and what we have fought for is to preserve freedom in the region and to preserve the region from becoming a hotbed from which there could be attacks launched against us and against Western interests. But what has happened in Iraq and what we’re seeing right now with ISIS is a good deal predictable by virtue of the president’s failure to act appropriately and at the extraordinary time that was presented a couple of years ago in Syria. And also his failure to achieve a Status of Forces Agreement so that we could have an ongoing presence in Iraq. Bad things happen as a result of inaction. Consequences have obviously been very severe.

GREGORY: So what would you do specifically? This would be your challenge had you been elected in 2012. [1] If the acid test is that Iraq cannot become a terrorist state from which America could be attacked, what would you do to prevent that from happening?

ROMNEY: Well, first of all, I’m just going to repeat what I said before, which is that there’s a time for action. There’s a propitious time to do things to prevent bad things from happening, to be able to shape events. And that time in Syria was when Assad was on his heels and when there was a moderate coalition of those coming together.

We should’ve supported them with arms. And the time was also signing a Status of Forces Agreement and having forces in Iraq. Now today we have to have the input of our intelligence services and the options provided by the military to know what action we could take to stop this ISIS movement from creating a terrorist state. But to tell you precisely what’s going to happen right now and what things we ought to do militarily would require me to get the kind of intelligence briefings I no longer get.

GREGORY: The question about a Status of Forces Agreement, in other words, should a certain number of U.S. troops have stayed behind in Iraq, you just heard Richard Engel, the Maliki government wanted U.S. forces to leave. Iran was pushing the Maliki government not to allow U.S. soldiers to have immunity in the country, which is a basis for any kind of agreement like that.

And it’s also striking your own views about this as a presidential candidate going back to 2007, when this was a big issue. And here’s something you said back then. I’ll quote from the Associated Press, “Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Thursday rejected the Bush administration’s vision of a decade-long U.S. troop presence in Iraq, akin to South Korea, and suggested a need for public benchmarks to gauge progress.”

Quoting you, “I think we would hope to turn Iraq security over to their own military, to their own security forces. And if presence in the region is important for us, then we have other options that are nearby,” Romney said. [2] Back then, you said it was up to the Iraqis to take care of this. Now you’re saying it’s President Obama’s fault for not committing U.S. forces.

ROMNEY: David, I actually ran for president in 2012 and made it very, very clear that I thought we should’ve signed a Status of Forces Agreement, consistent with what President Bush said a long time ago, that we should have an ongoing presence. [3] Not a massive military presence, but 10,000 or 20,000 troops to provide the training and the intelligence resources that Iraq would need to keep things like this from happening.

There’s no question that that’s what’s essential, that should’ve been done. I was very critical of the president for not using American strength and the fact that we have lost almost 4,500 lives there and $1.7 trillion dollars. We have the commitment, we have the strength to be able to get Maliki to sign a Status of Forces Agreement. The president said he wanted to get that done, and he didn’t. And his failure to achieve that is one of the things that has led to the crisis we’re seeing today. [4]

GREGORY: Isn’t the factor though, going back if you look at administrations from the Bush administration setting Maliki up to lead the country, that we would train, that we would put political pressure on the government to have an inclusive, multi-ethnic government, and to have democracy in Iraq, that we had forces there to create that reality, we would stand them up so that America could stand down. Isn’t it ultimately up to the Iraqis politically to take care of themselves, and not as you’re doing, just sort of lay blame at the current administration?

ROMNEY: Oh, of course the Iraqis have to take primary responsibility for the failures of the Maliki government, for instance, to involve the Sunnis more extensively in their administration. Of course much of the blame, the great majority of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the Iraqi leadership.

But at the same time, the United States of America has long had the capacity to shape events and to influence events. But what you’ve seen from this administration, whether from Hillary Clinton with the reset button to Russia, which by the way, I think should’ve been called the repeat button. I mean, this administration from Secretary Clinton to President Obama, has repeatedly underestimated the threats that are faced by America.

Has repeatedly underestimated our adversaries. And whether that’s Russia or Assad or ISIS or Al Qaeda itself, it has not taken the action necessary to prevent things from happening. We have not used our influence to do what’s necessary to protect our interests. [5]

Notes:

[1] — Romney, had he been elected 19 months ago and had taken office 17 months ago, clearly, based on what he said during the 2012 campaign, would have charted a different course than the indifferent Obama.

[2] — Those otherwise not inclined to watch the video should consider doing so just to observe the self-satisfied smirk on Gregory’s face at this point. But, as Romney pointed out, 2012 is not 2007. By way of comparison, in 2007, presidential candidate and Illinois Senator Barack Obama was ridiculing the incipient troop surge which led to the U.S. military routing Al Qaeda and winning the war. Late in the 2008 presidential election campaign, Obama was forced to admit that the surge he so bitterly opposed had worked out very well militarily. Earlier this year, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated in his then-released book that both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had opposed the 2007 troop surge for purely political reasons.

[3] — Contrary to what Gregory seems to believe, Romney’s statement in 2007 that combat-ready troops could be stationed elsewhere is not inconsistent with having a 10,000-to-20,000 person advisory and intelligence presence in Iraq.

[4] — A firm president genuinely interested in the well-being of the region wouldn’t have thrown up his hands at the first sign of resistance, as Obama did. This posture really gives away the fact that Obama wanted to get out of Iraq completely at the earliest conceivable date with any conceivable pretense.

[5] — The fact that Obama and Clinton, as Romney stated, “not used our influence to do what’s necessary to protect our interests,” makes it reasonable to ask whether they have genuinely been interested in doing that. There’s considerable room for doubt.

If Gregory’s interview had been of a Democrat during a Republican or conservative administration, the framework would have been, “What has the President done wrong?” Instead, Gregory acted as if the Iraq implosion just came out of nowhere, and now poor President Obama has to deal with it. Boo-hoo, David. It was left to Romney to get the conversation properly framed, and he did a decent job at it. Viewers don’t tune into the Sunday news shows to see the person interviewed doing the host’s job for him.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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