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Weighing Candidates' Foreign Policies


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, it's been nearly 60 years since public schools were legally desegregated, but new research shows schools are still divided. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, between now and election day, NPR will look at solutions that both President Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney have proposed for some of the problems facing the nation. We're calling this series of conversations Solve This. Last week, we talked about what the parties have to say about criminal justice.

Today, we'll focus on foreign policy. We thought it was a good time to do that with the U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York and the ongoing tensions overseas and we wanted to take a closer look at two regions that we cover a lot on this program, the Middle East and Africa.

So joining me now are Mvemba Phezo Dizolele. He's a foreign policy analyst and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford and Hisham Melhem. He's the Washington bureau chief for the satellite network, Al Arabiya.

Welcome to both of you.



HEADLEE: And let me begin with you, Hisham. When it comes to the Middle East - and including North Africa - let's go back to some of the foreign policy promises that candidate Obama made and how those have played out, whether he's fulfilled them as President Barack Obama.

MELHEM: Well, the president wanted to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, if you remember. I think, on the second day in office, he appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy. He said that he would pursue a policy of engagement with Iran and in Syria and he also wanted to have a "new beginning," quote, unquote, with the Muslim world, which led him to give that important speech in Cairo in June 2009.

The engagement policy with Iran and Syria, unfortunately, did not work, but it helped the president in showing the American people and the rest of the world that we try to engage Iran seriously regarding its nuclear program and the Iranians did not cooperate.

So today, the president could say that I'm responsible for imposing on Iran an unprecedented regime of sanctions with collaboration of the Europeans and other allies on the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the Palestine question. Unfortunately, the president did not make any headway for a variety of reasons. We can discuss them, you know, at length if you want to, but that did not work.

As far as the biggest surprise for him, that is the so-called "Arab Spring," quote, unquote, or the Arab Intifada, or uprisings. I think he handled Egypt very well. I think he handled Libya...

HEADLEE: Really? Even though he came kind of late to the party?

MELHEM: No. Actually, if you remember, the biggest demonstration in Egypt occurred on January 25th. On February 1st, the president of the United States publicly said that there should be a transition in Egypt, which means there has to be an end to the Mubarak era. And he was criticized by people here. He was criticized by the Saudis and the Arab nations in the Gulf, as well as the Israelis, who accused him erroneously of dumping Mubarak, as if the president could save Mubarak - this president or any other president.

He did well in Libya, notwithstanding all of the criticism that he's leading from behind. But essentially, the American role in Libya was extremely important. These are countries that are going through a tumultuous transition and nobody can control that transition. The United States can influence it, but the United States can not decide the future of these states.

So he's handling it in the right way, notwithstanding the tragic events in Libya recently.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take a listen, then, to Mitt Romney. Obviously, the president's at an advantage here with four years of foreign policy record, but here's a clip of Mitt Romney actually criticizing the president's approach to the Middle East and North Africa. This is from CBS News.

MITT ROMNEY: The president said, with regards to developments in the Middle East, that these are just bumps in the road. My goodness, we just had an ambassador assassinated. We have a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood who's now president of Egypt. Syria is in tumult. Pakistan is in tumult. Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon. These are bumps in the road?

HEADLEE: So how does Mitt Romney's approach differ from the president's approach that he's criticizing?

MELHEM: Mitt Romney doesn't know the Middle East, and when it comes to Iran, there's no daylight between Romney and the president. Romney cannot - does not have any solution to Iran different than the president of the United States, which says, we're going to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

On Pakistan and on Afghanistan, also, there are differences in, you know, in style and in approach, and criticizing the president for putting up some sort of a timetable for withdrawal, but there is really no Mitt Romney plan for Iran or for Afghanistan or Pakistan that is workable.

The issue of a bump in the road - the president is getting a bum rap on this issue. The president was not talking about what happened in Libya. The president was talking about the transition in these countries that went through these uprisings, and he was talking about the precarious nature of any kind of political transition. He was not talking about the killing of an ambassador in Libya and describing it as a bump in the road if you read the full statement.

So I think there is - you know, this is a bum rap when it comes to the president. On combating al-Qaida, for instance, I think the president's record has been stellar. It's true that he's using, you know, these drones attacks in a kind of, you know, intensive way, which is leading to collateral damage and the death of civilians.

HEADLEE: And a lot of bad - and a lot of bad...

MELHEM: That's true, but at the same time - and that's why we should have a discussion about this. I mean...


MELHEM: ...there's a moral aspect to this and we should discuss it. At the same time, the president can claim correctly that al-Qaida has been decimated in not only killing Osama bin Laden, but killing the second and third tier of leadership in al-Qaida. So, on the issue of combating al-Qaida, the president has a good record and the president did not alienate the Muslim world the way George Bush, in the old days, used to alienate the Muslim world by talking about Islam fascism and all of these things.

HEADLEE: Well, since you mentioned George Bush - you're listening to Hisham Melhem. He's a Washington bureau chief for the satellite network, Al Arabiya. Let's move over to Mvemba Phezo Dizolele because you might say that, in Africa, people miss the administration of George W. Bush.

Talk to me a little bit about the foreign policy that the president has shown in the continent of Africa.

DIZOLELE: When it comes to Africa, we can only analyze President Obama's policy through two prisms. One is his speech in Akra. You remember that, as a newly elected president, he went to Akra and spoke in the halls of the parliament of Akra...


DIZOLELE: ...of Ghana. And Ghana is a stellar example of democratization, organic democratization of the country, which has been shining on the hill. The president lectured the Africans about why they should take their own destiny in their own hands, which is the right thing to do because it's true. The destiny of the Africans is in the hands of the Africans.

But then the president proceeded to lecture them, to say that he, in fact, will - it was the end - the end of the era of strong men, that he will support democratic institution and growth and so on and so forth. But, since then, what has happened is - it's just been speeches.


DIZOLELE: The president has been good at delivering speeches. He's exceptional. But his administration has not really delivered.

HEADLEE: Although the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has racked up a lot of frequent flier miles.

DIZOLELE: Frequent flier miles, but that has not translated into much, so I'll give you an example. Let's talk about who are the strongest U.S. allies on the continent. We have Uganda, we have Rwanda, we have Ethiopia. Those are not stellar examples of democracies. Those are countries that...

HEADLEE: To say the least.

DIZOLELE: ...have strong men...


DIZOLELE: ...for various reasons. Let's look at the example of countries that were trying to go to democratic route that failed and what was the action that the U.S. government took. Let's take Mali. Mali is now in the news, but Mali, in many ways, is the epitome of what - the inefficient dimensions of U.S. policy towards Africa.

HEADLEE: You're saying that we - that the U.S. could have supported Mali better?

DIZOLELE: Way, way better. Mali - just for the record, Mali became a democracy in '91. A colonel, Amadou Toumani Toure, a true dictator...


DIZOLELE: ...and promised to return the country to democracy within a year. He kept his word and Mali became a functioning democracy. But Mali's a poor country. So our policies towards Mali, which is the largest cotton producer in Africa, were actually undermining Mali because we subsidized the economy here. We subsidized our farmers. Then Mali can not get the day in the light. No U.S. president ever visited Mali, you know.

HEADLEE: OK. But then let's compare this with what Mitt Romney has said. Obviously, he hasn't been president. We don't know what he'd do, but he did talk about foreign aid and he said - and I'm quoting here. "We should use an assistance program that helps unleash free enterprise to create enduring prosperity." What hints does that give you about how Mitt Romney might, say, help Mali better?

DIZOLELE: I think, you know, the candidates say things that sound good and then candidates when they become president, they realize that, what I was saying sometime doesn't really connect with the reality. But to answer that question, I think the two examples in this country that we've had of presidents who really stood by principles that have helped Africa; one was Jimmy Carter, who really made human rights and democratization a pillar of his policy. He never undermined U.S. security interests in Africa, so it was - for instance, the case of the DRC - he still worked with Mobutu.

HEADLEE: DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

DIZOLELE: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, but there was no doubt that he was pushing Mobutu in changing. So it was during that time that you have the emergence, all of these democracy leaders across Africa. So, in Zaire, the emergence of people like Etienne Tshisekedi...


DIZOLELE: ...in Cote d'Ivoire the emergence of people like Laurent Gbagbo. In Senegal, you had Abuawad.


DIZOLELE: All those people emerged in the days of Jimmy Carter because he created a space for them.

HEADLEE: And who was the other one?

DIZOLELE: The other one is George Bush.

HEADLEE: Yeah? Did more for Africa than any other U.S. president?

DIZOLELE: Exactly. He did more. He was not about speeches. Most Americans don't even know that George Bush cared about Africa. Here is a man, as a candidate, who was laughed at because he couldn't - he didn't know who Parvez Musharraf was.


DIZOLELE: But, once he became...

HEADLEE: Of Pakistan. Yeah.

DIZOLELE: Exactly. But, once he became president, I think he realized that economic development and freedom go together, so he set out to help African countries partner with the U.S. in reducing malaria through the Presidential Malaria Initiative. He created the Presidential Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, the Millennium Corporation Fund. So all these issues, so we need less talk when it comes to Africa.

HEADLEE: Good luck in the campaign.

DIZOLELE: Africa - and we need more actions.

HEADLEE: Good luck.


HEADLEE: Well, it sounds to me like the jury is out for you, Mvemba, on which candidate would be better and it sounds, Hisham, like the final word for you is that you think Obama is probably better in terms of foreign policy in the Middle East.

MELHEM: I think so. Yeah. Definitely.

HEADLEE: All right. That's Hisham Melhem. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya. And Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, foreign policy analyst and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. They both joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thanks to both of you.

DIZOLELE: Thank you.

MELHEM: Thank you.


HEADLEE: Coming up, a new study says Latino students are dealing with rising school segregation and black children in southern schools are being resegregated, and their education is anything but equal.

JOHN KUCSERA: The impact of segregation will steadily mount as we become a majority non-white nation.

HEADLEE: Still separate, still unequal, nearly 60 years after Brown versus Board of Education. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.