1:00 P.M. EDT
TAMPA CONVENTION CENTER, 333 SOUTH FRANKLIN STREET
MODERATOR: We’re pleased to welcome Richard Grenell who is a partner with Capital Media Partners, specializing in strategic and crisis communication. But also Ric has a lot of experience with the United Nations, having served four different Ambassadors in the early 2000’s in New York. We’ve asked him to come today to talk about foreign policy and the Republican platform. Ladies and gentlemen, Ric Grenell.
MR. GRENELL: Thank you very much. Thanks to the Foreign Press Center for doing this. I know you guys know how valuable the Foreign Press Centers are. I worked very closely with them for eight years, so I really do appreciate the fact that they do these briefings at the conventions. I think it’s helpful and definitely a good thing.
I’d love to just get right to your questions. I’m happy to take any questions on the United Nations, my expertise there.
QUESTION: From Mexico. We haven’t heard anything more concrete and different from the Republican party toward the policy of Latin America. It seems to me reading the platform that it’s the same thing that President George W. Bush did every year in Washington. I don’t see any difference on the offer of Governor Romney than what the Republicans did eight years ago. He is also saying that President Obama has forgotten about Latin America, but it happened with the Republicans in the White House. So what’s the difference? I don’t see any difference.
MR. GRENELL: Your point that parties keep forgetting Latin America?
MR. GRENELL: I have to say that being at the UN for so many years, we heard that quite a bit. We heard that criticism from not only the Latin American journalists, but a lot of the other Ambassadors, we worked very closely on the Security Council. As you know, there’s always representation from Latin America on the Security Council.
I have to say that I think we live in a time that there are just so may crises going on that certainly the issues that come to the Security Council at the UN, or the issues that are being dealt with in Washington or on Capitol Hill from a crisis perspective have been issues that are not Latin American issues. In one sense that’s a good thing because we’re not having to deal with crises; but I definitely hear your concerns.
As you know, the State Department has bureaus that are watching these issues, and certainly I think all of our embassies are paying close attention to those issues. But the criticism. I think that some of the specific conflicts haven’t bubbled up to the top tier for some reason, I view that as in some sense a positive because we have seen a lot of progress in Latin America. But again, we do have some very serious concerns that we need to be watching.
I guess in a nutshell I would just say that the embassies and the State Department continue to watch these issues and I don’t think that that’s a totally bad thing.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. I work for a newspaper from Spain. What the rebels in Syria have to do for United States to back them up?
MR. GRENELL: It’s such a good question. I was on the Security Council staff way long ago, when Syria was on the Security Council, and I worked closely with them. I remember those times when they were isolated on the Security Council and the government really had its own kind of thinking, even within a lot of other Middle Eastern countries.
I think first of all, from a conservative foreign policy perspective, one thing that we would have done very differently 18 months ago when the conflict started to unfold, we wouldn’t have been crippled with what to do. I think sending Ambassador Ford back to Damascus only to pull him back to Washington a couple of months later, only to send him back to Damascus, and then a couple of weeks later pull him back to Washington. I can tell you after serving in multilateral settings that that’s confusing not only to the American public, but it’s confusing to our allies, friends and others in the region.
So I think that was a huge problem that that vacuum that was created because of that, we had a lot of the bad players in the Syrian opposition really began to rise up because they didn’t really have any allies from the outside and from Western governments.
One thing I think the Syrian rebels could have done earlier is prove that they really are seeking democracy and human rights, and that they are not having a lot of the Islamists coordinating with them. Now I know it’s kind of a convenient time for many of them to kind of work to bring down the government with Islam. There’s been a lot of people that have written about the fact that many of the rebels are joining forces with bad actors temporarily and that there must be a time period that they’re going to separate. I’m not saying that that’s true. I’m just saying there has been a lot of information about that.
What I would just say is I think that the United States should have been much more actively trying to figure out who are the good players so that there wasn’t a vacuum created of a bunch of different rebels and opposition groups without some sort of help, and I think that we should have been able to support those groups much earlier.
QUESTION: Do you think if they start doing business the way Assad is doing with Russia, Americans could see a good opportunity when it comes to natural resources for --
MR. GRENELL: Explain that a little bit more. I’m not sure I --
QUESTION: With all the gas and all those businesses Assad has with Russia, do you think if [the rebels] make a proposal to United States about all the natural resources they have, they will be in a position of advantage, do you think the United States could help them a little bit? Or do you think they should ensure they are not going to be extremist and then United States could start talking about business?
MR. GRENELL: What I hear from that question, it’s kind of two different subjects. The first subject is whether or not we can kind of have business opportunities with them. I think we’ve got a long way to go before they can prove that that relationship should develop.
But in terms of just trying to bring down the Assad regime and trying to establish a new government, I’m somebody who believes that we should be very clear about regime change. We should be very clear that that is the U.S. policy. And then work towards that regime change by working with some of the better groups that are truly interested in looking for human rights advancements and work with them to not only give them walkie-talkies, which I think is what this administration has been doing, but to actually help them get more money, more funding, better organization, and arms.
QUESTION: Regarding relations with Russia. Do you think that current policies are working, or are we at a dead end?
MR. GRENELL: It’s a good question. I think you have to go back to the 2008 campaign, when President Obama -- as Candidate Obama -- really said that he wanted to trust a lot of people that hadn’t been trusted before. He chose strategically to push that reset button and to say that whatever happened in the past, I’m willing to forgive and look forward. That’s what the idea of a reset button is.
If you look at the evidence of really what’s happened since then, I think that it’s been a disaster. It just says that the idea that you would turn away from the lessons of the past of a relationship with Russia, that you’re not really learning from the past. Secretary of State Clinton -- who was Candidate Clinton at the time -- called that policy naïve. I think it’s now evident that that was a big show and it didn’t work. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
During the Bush administration, while I was there working on some of these issues, specifically the issue of Iran, we constantly heard the Russians say that they weren’t interested in another Iran resolution. That was pro forma. They would constantly say no, we don’t want to show up at expert level meetings, we don’t think that more needs to be done, we don’t think there should be another resolution. Yet we were insistent to say look at the facts, they are still enriching uranium, they’re not paying attention to some of these other resolutions. We actually put resolutions in place before we put sanctions in place. So we increasingly ratcheted up the pressure.
But the Russians every single time would tell us no, they don’t want to do it. I think it takes a willingness to look at countries like Russia in those situations and say it’s important, it’s a U.S. priority, and we’re going to do it. We’ll work with you on the text, we’ll try to do what we can, but at the end of the day we’re going to vote, and drive that to a vote. And don’t delay.
We were able to accomplish five resolutions on Iran at the UN during the Bush administration. For an administration that was called cowboy and unilateralist, I think that’s a pretty good accomplishment when you compare it to the fact that this administration, which said they would be more multilateral and work with our partners and reset the button with Russia, has only been able to get one resolution on Iran.
Now I will give you, most people will come back to me and say well, all the resolutions in the world on Iran haven’t worked. I give you that. All I’m saying is I do think that the American media should do a better job of highlighting the fact that this administration said we would be multilateralist and that we would lead the world and we would lead the UN, and the evidence showed that that hasn’t happened. They’ve actually done worse than the cowboy administration unilateralists of the Bush administration as they tried to portray us. So that’s one example.
My second example would just be on Syria. Again, it took them a very long time to deal with the Syria issue at the UN, to try to do a bunch of things, but then when they finally did have a resolution, the Russians have now vetoed it three times. I think the evidence shows that it hasn’t worked.
Lastly what I’ll say on that is, I dare to say that not only has the reset button not worked, but I think it’s made it worse. I think it’s made the situation worse. When we had that open mike situation where the President was speaking about missile defense, and most people forget what the subject matter was that they were talking about. They were actually talking about missile defense. In that the President is pleading to say, just give me a little bit more time. I’ll be better on this issue. I need more flexibility. And I think that message, sending that message to the Russians is exactly what the Iranians hear. Oh, maybe I should wait until after the election and then come back and offer the European deal, which what will allow you to enrich some uranium, maybe take it to Russia outside and come up with a new deal where we allowed the Iranians to enrich some uranium.
Lastly, what I’ll say is that idea which the Obama administration supported through the Europeans, that idea that was floated I think in Istanbul last, that idea is weaker than the UN resolutions that are currently on the table. You should have to go back and rewrite the UN resolutions. All the UN resolutions are very clear. What they say is the Iranians are not allowed to enrich any uranium. Zero. So you’d have to rewrite that if you allowed them to enrich a little bit. You really are weakening current UN resolutions.
QUESTION: I'm from the Times of India. There was a little bit of excitement among some people in India about the language in the [Republican] platform, which says that India is our geopolitical ally and strategic trading partner. Can you explain to us what does it mean for India-U.S. relationship?
Secondly, you worked with [then U.S.] Ambassador [to the UN] Khalilzad when Afghanistan was at the top of your priority list. Can you also give us a sense what kind of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy a possible Romney administration would have?
Finally, how do you feel about this administration's Burma policy, do you support it? Or do you think the Republicans could do much better?
MR. GRENELL: Let me start with Burma first, because I just remember that one from the end.
I was inside the Security Council when we forced the issue of Burma onto the agenda. We admittedly didn’t get much done. The Chinese were very much against us even talking about it. But that’s another example, I think, of if you really go to the UN and you’re worried about being the most popular country in the room, you’re not able to get five resolutions on Russia or an agenda item on Burma.
We were told flatly by the Chinese, "We are not talking Burma." We told the Chinese flatly, "We are talking Burma. We’re putting it on the agenda and if you want to have an agenda vote, we will force this to an agenda vote."
The Chinese, of course, get upset, that’s what they do. They’re fighting for their national interests, and we have to fight for ours. So we did get a discussion and a briefing on Burma for the first time and we forced the Security Council to remain seized of the issue and to watch the issue. Granted, not a lot was done, but we were forcing the issue to be talked about. We were forcing the press to talk about it in some way, and I think that we were constantly having briefings and sending people over.
So I think that was the beginning of a policy on Burma. As you remember, First Lady Laura Bush as well really made Burma an issue and tried to concentrate on it. I think this administration did push it as well, and were able to cut the ribbon, so to speak, on a lot of the heavy lifting that had been done before.
When it comes to India, obviously we work very closely with the Indians, especially at the UN. I have to say that I think we always -- whenever we talk about India -- we always have to talk about permanent members of the Security Council, because I think that’s one of the issues that people really are trying to get at. I think as you know in the Bush administration, we were very clear that the Japanese should get a permanent seat on the Security Council, and we came out for the Japanese and said that.
Now this administration has walked that back. There hasn’t been big support for the Japanese getting a permanent seat; however, President Obama has said that the current U.S. policy would be that the Indians should get a permanent seat. I think that’s a big reward.
The one thing that I’m concerned about in saying that India gets rewarded with a Security Council, permanent Security Council seat, is that one of the U.S. priorities is that that we encourage our friends and allies to not buy oil from Iran, and I think although the Indians have tried to cut back, they need to do more. They need to be able to recognize that this is a U.S. priority issue. It is a very serious U.S. priority issue, and I think the Obama administration should do more to say to the Indians, look, we continue to support you for a permanent seat on the Security Council, but you’ve got to do more in stopping the purchase of Iranian oil.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have many questions, but I’ll settle for two now.
Romney surrogates have claimed that Latin America has gotten worse under Obama, and Romney has promised a change and to hasten democracy in Cuba. So how credible is that when in over 40 years, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have achieved that? Number one.
And number two, when it comes to foreign policy and just general social issues in the platform, does Governor Romney have any leeway to change anything he’s against in that platform?
MR. GRENELL: I don’t speak for Governor Romney, I’ll make that clear. Let me take the separate question of the platform.
I think the platform is reflective of many, or I should say some, activists who travel to Tampa and work very hard on issues that they care deeply about. But I’ve been very clear that there’s a number of issues in the platform that I don’t fully support, and I think there are number of issues in the platform that every single Republican activist doesn’t support. It’s a large document with a lot of different ideas and certainly what I learned at the United Nations is that it’s difficult to put 15 countries in a room and try to figure out one statement. Imagine an incredibly big document with hundreds and hundreds of delegates from across the United States. What works in South Carolina doesn’t work in New York. I’m from California. What we believe are consistently conservative principles of personal responsibility and limited government involvement in our daily lives is different from what somebody else would think. So I think the platform is what it is. It’s a platform document. You look at the Democratic platform or the Republican platform, I think again those are the products of activists who traveled to Tampa and who care very deeply about those issues.
QUESTION: That raises a question. It’s not a binding document and therefore whoever turns out to be our next President, they can manipulate it or change it around and they set their own agenda. They don’t have to follow and obey it down to the T.
MR. GRENELL: The platform is the Republican National Committee platform. That’s different than the President’s positions.
QUESTION: I'm with a Japanese newspaper. I’d like to know how you evaluate the military and the foreign policy strategy of the current administration so far as to the Asia Pacific region.
MR. GRENELL: Say that again. How do I evaluate the current administration’s policy in Asia?
QUESTION: Yes. Especially regarding to China.
MR. GRENELL: Thank you very much for the question. I think it’s an interesting one.
The one thing that I have learned at the UN is that the Chinese don’t like to be alone when opposing an issue. They like to find a friend. Many times they vote with Russia to be able to balance the power out, so that it’s a Russia-China issue. But if you could peel away the Russians, the Chinese tend to not want to stand alone.
I think this administration hasn’t utilized that enough. We’ve certainly not paid attention to China’s movings in the Pacific specifically, and because of that you can’t blame the Chinese for acting, to do what they can to further their national positions on a variety of issues, and they have. They’ve taken advantage of the fact that this administration hasn’t been paying attention.
So it is a cause for concern. I think specifically our Navy, U.S. Navy -- clearly the Chinese are building up their Navy. We are not, and that’s a problem. Again, I wouldn’t blame the Chinese for wanting to flex their power in the region, but I think that it’s incumbent upon the United States government to watch more closely and to respond more appropriately.
Let me take one more.
QUESTION: Sir, I am from the Moroccan News Agency. First of all, I would like to join you in thanking every single member of the Foreign Press Center who are providing us with --
MR. GRENELL: They really -- I’ll let you have your question, but I do want to just say, I personally know how hard they work and how little praise they get. I know you all have situations where you get annoyed by them. I have heard a lot over the years of you want more. But it is one of the great jobs I think at the State Department to work at the Foreign Press Center and to work hard to put these trips together. They do a great job of being bipartisan, and I have a lot of friends who have cycled in through the Foreign Press Center, and they really do hard work. I will say if you watch their careers, if you’ve been inside the Foreign Press Center, you tend to go up. They do a good job after they leave the Foreign Press Center.
QUESTION: My question is, I would like to have your take on the Syrian opposition. In the case of a sudden collapse of the Syrian regime, do you think that this opposition is really ready to take over from day one?
My second question is, what is the outlook of Romney/Ryan towards the MENA region?
MR. GRENELL: To the what?
QUESTION: The Middle East/North Africa region in general.
MR. GRENELL: You obviously heard me answering the question previously on the Syrian opposition. I don’t have a ton more to add, but what I can say is what we’ve learned over the last couple of years with the Arab Spring is that no opposition is truly ready. They hope to be ready. Some are better than others. But I think we have to be very concerned about the collapse of a Syrian regime, which I think is inevitable, but we certainly don’t know when that will be. But we need to be doing much more. This administration should be doing much more to prepare.
Again, I go back to 18 months ago. We could have been working hard to find the right opposition groups and support those opposition groups. Imagine, for a second, if we had spent the last 18 months supporting the good guys within the opposition groups and pushing them to be better, rather than spending time sending Ambassador Ford back to Damascus only to pull him back, to send him back again, and to pull him back. It’s been chaos.
I also think that not enough pressure from the American media has been placed on the Lebanese situation and how -- I was at the UN when we pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon through the UN and through the international community. That was an amazing moment, and I will say I was there watching the Arab press beat up on the Bush administration from the beginning of 2001. There was a moment when we united the world and pushed the Syrians out after [former Prime Minister Rafic] Hariri’s murder that I saw unequivocally across the board, and some people in this room were there, and saw it, how the Arab press said you know what, George Bush, that was a good thing. And they saw the benefit of a muscular U.S. policy.
That benefit obviously has had some problems since then. We’ve seen Lebanon struggle again. I think the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to support Lebanon. They have the attitude that we get to just sit back, and the United States gets to be one of 15 members of the Security Council. And they forget that we have the opportunity to bring these issues forward and to say this is an agenda item that we think is important. Just watching what we didn’t do on Syria, I think we’ve let a lot of people down in the Middle East, where I saw after Iraq us begin to build that trust back. That America does want democracy and human rights for people. We’re not a nation that is looking to tell others what to do. We do seek greater democracy and human rights for everyone.
Lastly on that point, I would be remiss if I didn’t push my personal policy issue when it comes to these issues after being at the UN for eight years. I’ve come to the conclusion that the United States government has an opportunity, and we haven’t done it, both in the Obama administration or the Bush administration, to utilize technology to bring down the firewalls around the world.
There is absolutely no reason why Silicone Valley, which has the technology, Twitter and Facebook have the technology, to allow the internet to be free, truly free, everywhere. And yes, we’re going to hear complaints from certain governments who like to block information, but I think in 2012 not only is it time, it’s embarrassing that we haven’t done it yet. I think it’s a moral outrage that we have the technology to allow people access to information around the world for greater democracy and human rights, and we don’t give it to them because some government is complaining. I think you would see a dramatic difference in a Romney administration, by taking that technology, purchasing it, putting it at the forefront, so that people around the world will have access to free information and greater human rights and democracy.
I’m sorry that I have to go because I’m stepping in for Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who is my Congresswoman from Palm Springs, California. And I cannot disappoint my Congresswoman. I’m sure you understand that. But I’m happy to give my card out to anybody who would like to have further information. I live in California, so I’ve got a lot of free time on my hands.
Thank you very much.
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