STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Libya hearing provides a reminder of the role foreign policy is playing in the presidential campaign. We asked two foreign policy specialists about the candidates' approach to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
SHADI HAMID: Living here in the region, there is a general here that Obama is a weak president.
INSKEEP: A sense he says persists despite the U.S. intervention in Libya and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Daniel Larison, senior editor at The American Conservative magazine, has written scathing articles about Mitt Romney's approach.
DANIEL LARISON: An attitude that seems not to have taken account of the last 10 years and the setbacks that the U.S. has had in the Near East.
INSKEEP: And when Mitt Romney gave a speech this week calling for weapons to be sent Syria's rebels, Larison was unimpressed.
LARISON: I think the difference is really more rhetorical in this case than real. It's interesting that Romney didn't go any farther than calling for the indirect arming of the Syrian opposition. That's something that some people in his party would like to see; a more aggressive posture, and he's really only willing to go that far.
We do know from news reports that there have been U.S. efforts at providing the aid covertly by way of our allies in the region. So there seems to be a basic agreement in terms of what the administration is actually doing is what Romney is calling on them to do.
HAMID: I couldn't disagree more. I think there's actually a very stark contrast between Obama and Romney when it comes to Syria. The Obama administration has dragged its feet for the last nine months when it comes to arming the rebels. And yes, finally, some light arms are getting to them. But what they're asking for is heavy weaponry and they are not getting that.
Now, you know, Romney - for whatever else his faults are on this and other issues - is actually saying that there is a need to get arms to the Syrian rebels and that the U.S. needs to take the lead in ensuring that happens and coordinating that process. And that's where I think U.S. leadership is and can be very important.
INSKEEP: Shadi Hamid, do you miss President George W. Bush on some level?
HAMID: No, not at all. I think it's somewhat concerning, I think, that in the U.S. public discourse, support for a strong U.S. role and a proactive democracy promotion posture is still closely tied to the Bush administration. Actually, support for human rights and democracy was long a liberal issue and liberals were leading on the front on that.
I was against the Iraq war. I think that will always be remembered as one of the most tragic mistakes in U.S. foreign policy and we're paying the price and we will continue paying the price for that. That doesn't mean we should throw out the baby with the bath water and say that everything that Bush did was bad.
INSKEEP: Daniel Larison, you eluded to Mitt Romney, you thought, ignoring the realities of the past decade. What are those realities that must be heeded?
LARISON: Well, for one thing, that America has limits on its power and that it can't expect to transform or reorder entire countries. And we've seen that both in the essentially failed nation-building attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the things that I do hear from Romney is that he seems to regret the fact that the U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq and I simply don't understand what he thinks the U.S. could accomplish by continuing to have large military forces in these countries for some prolonged period.
The other thing that I think Romney has certainly not learned is that preventive wars in the name of disarming other regimes are extremely reckless and dangerous for the U.S. And certainly in his rhetoric on Iran and to some extent the rhetoric that we're hearing from him about Syria suggests he is open to much more direct military action on the part of the U.S. and that's one of the things that I'm very worried about.
HAMID: Yeah, this is actually my primary concern about Romney. I think an Iran strike would be disastrous for the Middle East and for U.S. interests and it would overshadow any other positive gains due to the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, Obama has also kept the military option on the table and this is where I would criticize both of them. And I find it remarkable that we would consider attacking Iran, but we won't consider military intervention in Syria, which, in my view, is more pressing, more important, many more people have obviously been killed. It's not even a comparison. We're talking about 30,000 plus in Syria versus, as far as I can tell, zero in Iran at least recently.
INSKEEP: One other thing, gentlemen. One of the reasons we brought you in was because neither of you seemed to approach foreign policy questions and these two candidates on a strictly partisan basis. How polarized is the foreign policy debate in this country right now along partisan lines?
HAMID: What I think is really interesting is to look at the reaction to Romney's speech. Pretty much everyone fell in line to where their partisan affiliations were, which was weird to me because when I came out of it, I actually thought, wow, you know, there were major problems in this speech, but I was pleasantly surprised. I think Romney, for the first time, was able to offer a somewhat coherent narrative and distinguish himself from Obama, which is something he had to do. But I had trouble finding any Democrat who had good things to say about Romney's speech.
LARISON: I think the biggest response you're seeing from Democrats is that Romney is simply echoing Obama or that his criticisms are redundant or beside the point.
INSKEEP: Is that right?
LARISON: In my view, it's often correct, yes, on many issues. Romney really is creating differences that don't exist so that he'll have something to talk about.
INSKEEP: Daniel Larison of The American Conservative, thanks very much.
LARISON: Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: And Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Dohas Center, thanks to you once again.
HAMID: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: And the foreign policy campaign debate will continue to evolve in real time alongside world events we'll be following on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.