Foreign Policy Issues
Do you support increased sanctions against Iran? If so, what kind of sanctions? Specter: Yes, I support enhanced sanctions. It is important that the next round of sanctions be measured. As RAND scholar Alireza Nader noted in a Sept. 30, 2009 paper: "Additional sanctions may create popular resentment against the government, and may even increase protests and opposition stemming from Iran's disputed presidential election."
We must be careful with sanctions so as not to play into the hands of the Iranian leadership, who would very much like to blame Iran's current economic struggles on the West.
Sestak: Yes. I strongly believe that we must continue pursuing aggressive sanctions against Iran in order to halt their nuclear-weapons program. We should use a wide variety of stringent sanctions to pressure the Iranian regime.
That is why, last year, after Iran failed to react positively to President Obama's diplomatic efforts, I voted for the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act and the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act. Then, last month, I voted for a motion ordering the House conferees to retain stronger language contained in the House version of the petroleum sanctions bill. I have also led efforts to guarantee a final sanctions bill no later than the end of May.
Have we reached the point that we must figure out how to live with a nuclear Iran? Would you support Israel's decision to "go it alone" to strike Iran if it feels it has no other alternative? And what should the United States' response be if that happens?
Specter: No, we have not reached the point where we must live with a nuclear Iran. Israel must do what it deems necessary to ensure its security. The United States needs to respect Israeli security interests, understanding that Israel cannot lose a war and survive. The United States has many layers of defense to protect our security interests and survive.
Iran's continued nuclear program is a ticking time bomb. All parties — Iran included — will benefit from its end. Enhanced sanctions, with the goal of ending Iran's nuclear program and preventing wider conflict in the Middle East, are our best option.
Sestak: No. Iran cannot be permitted to have nuclear weapons due to our own security and the region's allies' security, in particular, Israel. While the military option cannot ever be taken off the table, it should be left at the back of the table, as Congress and President [Barack] Obama continue working toward the imposition of stringent sanctions against Iran that will halt the continuation of their nuclear-weapons programs.
A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave national security challenge both to us and our allies, the Israelis, whom President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has threatened to "wipe off the face of the earth." Proliferation of a nuclear capability by Iran would also likely lead to a regional arms race in the Middle East, which would be a disaster.
Any nation has a right to defend itself if it feels threatened. As a former admiral, however, I am familiar with the available strike options in the Persian Gulf, and the fact of the matter is that Israel is not capable of a successful strike against Iran's nuclear infrastructure without U.S. military assistance because of factors such as refueling and airspace control, among others.
Therefore, it is incumbent on the United States to make all efforts to ensure Israel's security in any scenario.
Sen. Specter, you recently signed an AIPAC-backed letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging her to reaffirm the bonds between Israel and the United States. The letter was for all intents a rebuke of President Obama's course on the Middle East. What has gone wrong?
Specter: I do not see it as a rebuke of President Obama. Rather, it was a reaffirmation of the importance Congress places on our strategic relationship with Israel, which has weathered disputes in the past, just as it will weather the current row.
Congressman Sestak, you suggested that America should push for peace in the Middle East, but that it should not happen at the expense of Israel. Some say that your signing of a recent congressional letter critical of Israel's economic blockade of Gaza, and your refusal to sign a recent AIPAC-backed letter to Secretary Clinton urging her to reaffirm the bonds between Israel and the United States, puts Israel at risk. How do you respond to that?
Sestak: I strongly support Israel's security, having visited Israel more than half a dozen times during my naval career. I believe that Israel serves as a vital ally to the United States and that the unique U.S.-Israeli friendship must be preserved and strengthened for generations to come. It is also my firm belief that the successful negotiation of a two-state solution will advance Israel's security in the region.
I believe the United States must be engaged in the peace process because when I served in the White House as director of defense policy in the Clinton administration, I learned — for example, by our successful peace efforts in Northern Ireland — that other nations or groups are most willing to work toward peace when the United States is actively engaged in the efforts.
Over the course of my career in the U.S. Navy, I learned to appreciate the limits of military force and the need to utilize the full range of our power, including diplomacy, sanctions, and economic or humanitarian aid. Israel is part of our vital interests, as it has bearing on our own security. The letter I signed concerning Gaza reflects another primary interest we have — humanitarian interests. Currently, Hamas is using the suffering of the Palestinian people as a recruiting tool for terrorists and a bargaining chip with foreign powers, and they should be held to account. I believe humanitarian aid — with the appropriate oversight and safeguards — will over time lessen, not increase, the capacity of Hamas to threaten Israel. I truly believe the United States can meet our humanitarian interests without impacting the vital interest of our own, and Israel's, security.
With regard to the AIPAC-backed letter, I believe it was a good letter, but did not include the overarching point of how finger-pointing amongst allies does not help provide an effective dialogue amongst friends; and, moreover, that our continuing objective must be a two-state solution that ensures Israel's security, and is forward-looking about ensuring that these kinds of situations do not recur in the future. I raised these two points in my own letter that I wrote to Secretary Clinton the same day.
Do you think that the settlements are the reason the peace process has broken down?
Specter: The situation is far more complex than that one issue.
Sestak: The settlements dispute should not have occurred between the United States and Israel, two stalwart allies. The way it was handled by both nations has not helped bring about a positive engagement. The United States must keep in mind that if Israel does not feel secure, then it is less willing to take risks for peace, and we must continue to ensure that Israel's security in the region is our No. 1 goal. Imposed solutions will not work, and we need to ensure that our focus remains on the peaceful conclusion of a two-state solution by working with Israel.
Do you believe a unified Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel? If not, should Israel freeze all its building in eastern Jerusalem?
Specter: Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel. In 1983, I joined Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in introducing legislation to require the U.S. Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I continue to support legislation requiring such a move.
Sestak:Both issues are ones that should be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians with the United States "in the room"; nothing should be mandated — by the administration or by Congress — upon the two parties as a condition for peace or at the beginning of the peace process.
If Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad goes before the United Nations next year asking for recognition of a Palestinian state based on the institutions he has created in the West Bank, should the U.S. approve or veto such a resolution?
Specter: The United States should support a two-state solution, but should not dictate the terms.
Sestak: The United States should not approve such a resolution. It would be absolutely wrong to recognize Palestinian statehood until the Fatah-Hamas schism is resolved, and both the Palestinians and Israelis come to a peaceful agreement on borders that will be recognized and respected throughout the region. The United States must continue its efforts to effect this reality.
Domestic Policies Issues
What is your opinion of President Obama's pick for the next Supreme Court Justice, Elana Kagan?
Specter: There is no doubt that Elena Kagan has exemplary academic and professional credentials. And she has been a pioneer for women, serving as the country's first female solicitor general and as the first woman to be dean of Harvard Law School. I applaud the president for nominating someone who has a varied and diverse background outside the circuit court of appeals.
I voted against her for solicitor general because she wouldn't answer basic questions about her standards for handling that job. It is a distinctly different position than that of a Supreme Court justice. I have an open mind about her nomination, and hope she will address important questions related to her position on matters such as executive power, warrantless wiretapping, a woman's right to choose, voting rights and congressional power.
Sestak: Ms. Kagan's qualifications as both a respected legal mind who rose to be dean of Harvard Law School and a key domestic policy adviser for President Bill Clinton, who helped formulate and implement policies in areas including education, crime and public health, will allow her to bring a breadth of experience to the bench.
My opponent has already made his views about the president's nominee clear by voting against her confirmation to be solicitor general, even as seven of his fellow Republicans approved her nomination. I expect Sen. Specter may backtrack from his earlier vote on Ms. Kagan this week in order to help himself in the upcoming primary election, but the people of Pennsylvania have no way of knowing where he will stand after May 18.
The Supreme Court recently split on a case involving a cross on veterans' graves in the Mojave Desert. What is your view on the court's recent decisions involving church-state issues?
Specter: As I said upon introducing legislation seeking cameras in the Supreme Court in 2007, the Supreme Court's "Establishment Clause" jurisprudence is a mess:
While the multiple concurring and dissenting opinions in several church-state cases serve to explain some of the confounding differences in outcomes, it would have been extraordinarily fruitful for the American public to watch the justices as they grappled with these issues.
I am generally critical of any entanglement of government and religion, and am therefore sympathetic with Justice John Paul Stevens' dissent in the April 2010 case Salazar v. Buono, in which the court issued another splintered Establishment Clause decision. Stevens wrote: "I certainly agree that the nation should memorialize the service of those who fought and died in World War I, but it cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message."
Sestak: As a man of faith, I understand the importance of being vigilant in the devotion to spiritual or religious beliefs. I am fully supportive of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, specifically in its defense of the freedom of religion, clearly stating that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
These words are intended to defend the people of many faiths … or Americans who choose not to practice any organized religion at all.
I do not believe that this particular case, Salazar v. Buono, will significantly change the way this nation views or interprets the freedom of religion, as it was decided primarily on technical grounds. The bottom line is: I believe there must be a definitive separation of church and state.
And what do you think is the probability that the court could move to limit reproductive choice?
Specter: I support Roe v. Wade, but I have never applied a litmus test on that issue with regard to judicial nominees.
Sestak: With respect to reproductive health: In 1973, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution protects a woman's choice whether to make decisions about her reproductive health, including whether to terminate her pregnancy in its landmark decision of Roe v. Wade. Over the past 34 years since that decision, the court has repeatedly upheld Roe's core principles, and I do not believe the Supreme Court will change this decision, nor should it.
What do you make of the immigration law passed in Arizona? What sort of reform would you advocate?
Specter: The enforcement provisions of the Arizona immigration law may be unconstitutional, given the risk of racial profiling inherent within the law. The Arizona law could also result in a very serious negative impact on relations between the state and federal government, and the Hispanic community.
I have been a longtime supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, and supported proposed bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation in both 2006 and 2007.
We need legislation that will increase the number of visas available to meet the demands of our labor market, speed up the process whereby overseas immigrant family members are reunited with their families here, eliminate the delays for immigrants to become U.S. citizens and crack down on unscrupulous employers who exploit undocumented immigrant workers.
Sestak: The Arizona immigration law is wrong and deeply troubling, as its enforcement will inherently be prejudicial. I have long advocated a multifaceted approach to addressing the issue of illegal immigration. First, I believe securing our national borders is important to protect our nation from the narcotics trade, terrorism and other transnational dangers. Then, we can begin to address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in our country. We must carefully consider what is practically possible, and what is best for both the long-term prosperity and security of our country. I do not believe finding and deporting unauthorized aliens is a practical solution.
During the time it will take to secure our borders and implement an employer-verification system, we should give illegal immigrants an opportunity to come out of the shadows. They must be identified, they must be fingerprinted, they must pass a thorough background check, and they must be documented.
Reliable documents that provide data on employment history, immigration history and other factors that accurately indicate the status and identity of the bearer are critical to the effective administration of immigration law and the determination of eligibility toward citizenship.
Why should a Jewish voter in Pennsylvania choose you?
Specter: My long-term commitment to issues of concern to Israel and to Jewish Americans, coupled with my proven ability to deliver for Pennsylvania, are several such reasons. As The Philadelphia Inquirer said in endorsing me: "The senator is still a highly influential lawmaker and appropriator on behalf of Pennsylvanians. He is also one of those rare congressmen who contribute both on the national and international stages. His expertise on the Middle East, federal law enforcement, the judiciary, and health-care research has provided presidents of both parties with valuable counsel."
Sestak: I think Jewish voters should support me primarily for the same reasons any Pennsylvanian would support me — they share my commitment to Democratic values and Pennsylvania's working families' health, education and security. But I also intend to use my unique background as the highest-ranking former military officer ever to serve in Congress to help preserve America's commitment to Israel's security, promote a robust peace effort, and advocate for tough diplomacy and sanctions to contain Iran and other threats to America and our allies.
Both as an admiral and and as director of defense policy under President Clinton, I have personally undertaken several efforts to advocate for Israeli security and ensure Israel's ability to maintain its qualitative military edge.
I also understand the limits of power, when to use it, and understand the requisite strategy of engagement that can and should be used to bring lasting peace when military options cannot alone succeed.