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Right Turn
Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 11/23/2011

Exclusive: Post-debate interview with Rick Santorum

There were moments during last night’s Republican presidential debate when you had to bang your head on the desk. Herman Cain wants us to stop buying (nonexistent) oil from Syria. Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants to cut off aid from Pakistan until it becomes overtly pro-American. On the bright side, you sure could tell the informed from the ignorant and the experienced from the novice. I spoke at length this morning with one of those who doesn’t make rudimentary errors, Rick Santorum.

Slightly hoarse from the debate, Santorum was careful not to insult his rivals, but his message was clear: Now is not a time for an amateur to be commander in chief. On Iran in particular, he argues that his work in co-authoring the Iran Freedom Act and in studying and lecturing on Iran and radical jihadism (he went to 25 college campuses after leaving the Senate), provides him with a unique ability to navigate through this perilous time. “It’s really important to educate the American public,” he explained. “Iran is a very big deal, and most Americans don’t understand that Iran is different.” By that he means that it is not a normal nation-state motivated by geopolitical calculation but instead is driven by a radical view of Islam. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon and embarks on more aggressive course than anything we’ve seen, Santorum warned, “The public is going to be stunned when all hell breaks loose. They’re going to ask, ‘Why didn’t we know?’ ”

Santorum told me that the American people haven’t been properly prepared because our leaders won’t talk about the jihadist ideology that motivates Iran’s rulers. He said that in general Americans “don’t get who these people are.”

He argued that had the George W. Bush and Obama administrations fully implemented and funded the legislation he authored, namely by funding dissidents and providing technology and support, we would have had a chance to tip the balance toward regime change. “We could have been in the position during the Green Revolution [to oust the mullahs] if we had publicly condemned the regime, brought in the U.N. and rallied the world community behind the dissidents. We didn’t do that.” That sort of full-court press with added pressure on the Central Bank of Iran and oil sanctions could have made a difference, he believes.

Santorum turned to Afghanistan, drawing on his understanding of what motivates radical jihadists. Rather than talking about withdrawal, we should talk about victory, he cautioned. “Leaving under these circumstances is simply an affirmation to them that they are tougher.” He continued, “They think ‘Yeah, if attacked, America will slap back but their attention will shift to other things.’ ” Quoting Osama bin Laden, he argued that only by sticking through and seeing the mission completed can we shake the jihadists’ conviction that Americans are “soft and weak.”

I asked Santorum about his closing debate remarks citing Central and South America as neglected regions that merit greater attention. He said, “We should start by embracing and engaging our friends. We should not have hung Colombia out to dry [on delaying the free-trade agreement]. We should have sent congratulations to Honduras for defending their constitution instead of backing the radical socialist.” And on Mexico, he said, we should be trying to play a more constructive role economically and diplomatically in helping to stabilize our neighbor. Is this a problem of benign indifference by President Obama? “I’m concerned it’s not even benign indifference. He is embracing radical socialists,” he said of Obama. In some of his toughest language to date, he said Obama seems actively to be helping the wrong side in these fights. “How else to you account for Honduras?” he asks, pointing out that on one side was the democratic majority and on the other, a pawn of Hugo Chavez.

Finally, he addressed Newt Gingrich’s comments on illegal immigration. “He took the most sympathetic case — someone who has been here 25 years. That means they came the day after Simpson-Mazzoli. Why did they come? We created a magnet, and Newt’s plan would create a magnet too.” He doesn’t believe we should give people “the benefits of being here illegally.” He said, “Do I want to have police start breaking down doors. No. . . . But people shouldn’t be allowed to work [if they came illegally], and they should go through the process.” As for Gingrich’s desire for individual communities to set up boards to decide who would go and who would stay, he commented, “When I first heard it, I thought, ‘Oh, that’d be nice if communities could decide. It harkened back to a simpler time.’ ” But then, as he thought about it, Santorum told me, he figured out, “They’d all go to Los Angeles, and everyone will get in!” Since people are mobile, he argued, the plan doesn’t make much sense. And if some people couldn’t go to the easiest locale, we will have “different standards” for people in different locations.

Santorum, however, is not unmindful that there are different situations among people here illegally. As for people who came, for example on student visas but have overstayed, he would favor having them pay some penalty but then being eligible for green cards if they are here being productive.

It remains a bit of a mystery that Santorum has yet to show progress in the Iowa polls. He’s been there, he’s gotten good reviews from the stump and in speeches, and he is certainly a solid conservative. He mused to me that he hopes that “the old Iowa,” where personal contact and fidelity to conservative positions matter, still exists. And considering how quickly candidates have wilted under the glare of attention, maybe it’s not an altogether bad thing to be out of the limelight.

Santorum will have more chances to perform in debates and weeks more to meet and greet Iowans. If Gingrich falters like the rest of the anti-Romney pack has, the opening is there for him to do well and get himself into the race.

By  |  11:15 AM ET, 11/23/2011

Categories:  2012 campaign, foreign policy, Iran, Immigration

 
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