May 25 (Bloomberg) -- Senator John Kerry said Russia is closer to the U.S. position than many Americans realize on issues including Syria’s future, and called Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney “breathtakingly off target and naive” for calling Russia the nation’s foremost geopolitical foe.
Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told him during a recent meeting that Russian leaders share the belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. Syria has experienced 14 months of civil unrest that the United Nations estimates has killed as many as 10,000 people, and Lavrov publicly has blamed Assad’s opponents for the violence.
“I cannot think of any statement that frankly is more inappropriately threatening and simply wrong by any calculus than” Romney’s assessment of the threat from Russia, Kerry said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
“We have much bigger problems on this planet in the Middle East, with the evolution of Egypt, with the challenge of Syria, terrorism, al-Qaeda in Yemen, and so forth,” he said.
Discussing this year’s election campaign, Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, took a swipe at Romney’s governorship of their home state of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. During Romney’s term, “we went backwards in employment, backwards in income for people,” he said.
On Pakistan, Kerry called “egregious” the country’s imposition of a 33-year sentence on a doctor for assisting the U.S. in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, while saying it would be “a mistake right now to cut aid” in response.
A court in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region convicted the doctor, Shakil Afridi, on May 23, of running a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad, the Pakistani town where bin Laden hid for as long as five years, to obtain a DNA sample from those living in the compound where the terrorist was shot dead by Navy SEALs during a raid last May.
Kerry, 68, said he has hopes, based on recent talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s summit in Chicago, that the U.S. will be able to “get this relationship into a better place” over the next few weeks.
Pakistan has “some legitimate complaints,” said Kerry, including over the case of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency contractor who last year shot and killed two Pakistani men he said tried to rob him. The contractor, Raymond Davis, was charged with murder in Pakistan but ultimately allowed to return to the U.S.
On Afghanistan, Kerry said he could see an American force level of between 10,000 and 25,000 troops after 2014 as the U.S. seeks to avoid a precipitous departure from the war-torn nation that still poses a terrorist threat to the U.S.
“I envision a platform from which we can conduct counterterrorism activities, protect the interest of the United States, prevent the Taliban from taking over,” he said. “The reality is we’ve really only had a strategy since 2009. People forget that.”
The U.S. began its military operation in Afghanistan in October 2001 in retaliation for the assistance the Taliban government then in control had provided the Sept. 11 terrorists.
On Iran, Kerry said U.S. sanctions “are really hurting” that nation and should be effective in forcing an agreement on its pursuit of nuclear technology.
“We have to find the solution here, and I believe we will,” Kerry said. “I think that in the end the Iranians will be rational.”
Iranian leaders want the international community to accept that their nation has a right to enrich uranium on its soil for peaceful use. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Jewish state will never be safe unless Iran ceases all enrichment so it can’t secretly build an atomic bomb.
That put the U.S. in a difficult position as it began a second round of nuclear talks this week in Baghdad with its five partners -- the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia.
If there’s no agreement, additional sanctions will go into effect in the beginning of July. “We have a lot of time between now and then,” said Kerry.
On China, Kerry said he expects “a public playing out of enormous tensions over these next years,” as the Asian nation transforms into a global economic leader in the absence of a political transformation.
“There is going to be a huge change taking place,” he said. “It will certainly transform the current political structure.”
Kerry criticized Romney’s economic plan to provide a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut.
“That is to reinstitute sort of Bush on steroids,” Kerry said, referring to tax cuts, first enacted under former President George W. Bush, that are slated to expire at the end of this year. U.S. tax revenues are at a 60-year low while the nation’s national debt continues to mount, Kerry said. “We can’t afford that.”
He also criticized Romney’s position against the bailout of U.S. automotive companies, including General Motors Co. “If you had chosen Mitt Romney’s decision, they wouldn’t be around today,” Kerry said.
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