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Sen. Pat Roberts, speaking in Wichita, warns of potential trouble in Middle East

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, at 4:50 p.m.

Although most Americans are now focused on domestic issues such as health care, the next major crisis could start in the Middle East, Sen. Pat Roberts told a Wichita business audience.

“Right now everybody’s worried about their pocketbook, and they should,” Roberts said. “But watch out for foreign policy. If some chaotic event happens over there and then all of a sudden we see some real financial problems and it gets to be real serious, it would be a tough time for us.”

Roberts spoke to a luncheon meeting of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

The senator said a chaotic event could come from several countries, including Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan or Syria.

“I don’t like saying this, but I think we’ve reached a point where our allies, I’m not sure they really trust us for a lot of different reasons, that we’ll stand by our word,” Roberts said. “And I don’t think our enemies really fear us to the degree we’ve had in the past.”

Probably the biggest foreign danger right now is from Iran, he said.

Last week, the U.S. and five other countries reached a deal to ease some economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for a freeze on the country’s nuclear program, creating a six-month window for talks aimed at a permanent solution.

Roberts said he thinks it’s a bad deal for the United States.

“We have sanctions, very tough sanctions,” Roberts said. “Once you let those sanctions go, you’re not going to get them back. Those are 10-year efforts and five votes on the (United Nations) Security Council for these sanctions. And now we have people eager to do business with Iran and I understand that, but I don’t think it’s in our national interest.”

Critics of the deal have noted that it doesn’t require Iran to dismantle its nuclear capabilities, only to hold them where they are and allow inspections.

If further talks fail, it could touch off a nuclear domino effect across the Middle East, Roberts said.

“If Iran gets this nuclear capability – and they can under this deal, this is not the best deal by any means – but if they get that capability, Saudi Arabia has no alternative but to seek that capability and then you just multiply that around that whole region,” Roberts said.

Egypt also retains potential for causing major trouble, Roberts said.

Roberts said he was especially concerned recently to see photos of Egypt’s military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reviewing his troops with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“Somehow, by leading by following or not even following we have elevated (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to a point he’s back on the world stage, in fact he has a Third World country,” Roberts said.

Shoigu’s visit signaled broader cooperation between Moscow and the military government that has been running Egypt since its army deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July.

The Obama administration has reduced military aid to Egypt in an effort to encourage movement toward democratic civilian rule.

Roberts said pushing too hard for democracy could backfire in Egypt.

“You can’t put democracy on stony soil, like Astroturf, and hope it’s going to take where people don’t want it and there’s never been any experience in it,” Roberts said. “I don’t know when the heck we’re going to learn that lesson, but we have to learn that lesson.

“At the same time Egypt is a key, key country with regards to our situation being an ally with Israel and for stability in the whole region.”

On domestic policy, Roberts spent most of his speaking time criticizing the troubled rollout of insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

He linked the health care act to a recent move by Democratic senators to water down Republicans’ ability to filibuster presidential appointments to federal judgeships.

Roberts said the change will allow Democrats to pack the District of Columbia appeals court, which will hear a challenge to the health law from Oklahoma. That state is claiming that the law’s requirements for insurance policies should not apply to states – including Kansas – that opted not to set up their own state-run insurance exchanges.

While it will now take only 51 Senate votes to confirm judicial nominees, it will still take 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and change rules in the health law that empower four federal agencies to make decisions on what the government will and won’t cover through the Medicare program, Roberts said.

“So the Senate decides to go 51-50 to stack a court with regards to our constitutional responsibilities, but 60 votes to deny an unelected bunch of bureaucrats to decide how much we reimburse Medicare,” he said. “That’s a little topsy-turvy, folks. That’s very, very dangerous.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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