Washington • Returning from a fact-finding mission to the Middle East, Sen. Mitt Romney said Tuesday that the region still faces extraordinary and difficult problems and the United States must keep investing in diplomacy to help bring peace to what remains a tinder box.
The Utah Republican, who visited Israel, Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian-controlled city of Ramallah, said each place he touched down faces different but tough issues in a region where tensions remain high.
In Iraq, Romney toured Baghdad and spoke to top officials, including Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and said he was overwhelmed with the problems the war-torn country is trying to solve.
“I came away recognizing that things are always more complicated than you might imagine,” Romney told reporters at the U.S. Capitol. “But as you listen to the individuals in Iraq you recognize just how much in terms of a challenge they face.”
One thing that could help, Romney said, was to confirm the nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Matt Tueller, a Utahn who has worked in various diplomatic missions and is currently America’s top envoy in Yemen.
“I think it's important for us to have an ambassador there as soon as we can,” Romney said, noting he and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., were escorted by the top career official at the U.S. embassy, Joey Hood.
Hood “is a very impressive and capable person at the same time in places like this having someone who they know has contact directly to the secretary of state and the president I think is a very high priority.”
Tueller, Romney said, fits the bill.
“I think he's a highly capable and experienced diplomat whose work in the Middle East distinguishes him as a individual of great capacity who can make a real difference,” Romney told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The freshman senator is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism.
During his confirmation hearing, the career diplomat nominated by President Donald Trump says he's ready to tackle the challenging posting.
“Our relationship with Iraq remains a critical one for the national security interests of the United States, and if confirmed I will do my utmost to advance U.S. interests there,” Tueller testified.
Romney also noted the ongoing feud between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and emphasized that he still believes a two-state solution is the only way forward.
The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, met with the senators during the trip. Romney said the prime minister warned that “there are many people that have not come to grips with the reality that there needs to be a two-state solution.”
Romney's thoughts? It's the only option.
“I would say I don't know what the alternative is other than a two-state solution,” he said. “No one articulated to us anywhere in the region an idea or a proposal for something other than a two-state solution.”
The Jewish and Palestinian populations are roughly the same now – 6.6 million each – but Palestinian growth is larger and over time would be the majority of people living in the disputed area.
Murphy, who is the top Democrat on Romney's subcommittee, said the recurring theme with both the Palestinian Authority and Israel is that the chance of finding a solution soon is lessening and America needs to be a strong partner to help negotiate the “Deal of the Century,” as people there referred to it.
“You know on both sides – the Israeli side and the Palestinian side – there is increasing worry that the two-state future is slipping away. And yet I don’t know that anybody has a better answer because … as Senator Romney said, if you are not invested in a future Palestinian state then you are — you are likely endorsing the permanent second-class treatment of Palestinians inside Israel.”
Romney did not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was vacationing after a tough re-election campaign, but the two spoke by phone.