[Editors note: This three-part series examines the policy differences between the three candidates on the May 25 special-election ballot to fill the vacancy in Montanas U.S. House seat. Todays final story looks at foreign policy.]
By SAM WILSON
Daily Inter Lake
Just five days remain before Montanas voters select their next delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, ending a 75-day election cycle that has focused mainly on the domestic-policy positions of two candidates who have never held public office.
Its Democrat Rob Quists first political campaign. His opponent, Republican Greg Gianforte, already ran one statewide campaign, narrowly losing last years gubernatorial race against Gov. Steve Bullock. For both however, its the first time they have sought a position that will potentially shape how the U.S. conducts itself on the world stage.
In separate interviews with the Daily Inter Lake earlier this month, the two major-party candidates, along with Libertarian Mark Wicks, discussed their positions on U.S. foreign policy in Syria, North Korea and Russia.
Following revelations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used sarin gas, an internationally banned chemical weapon, on his own people last month, President Donald Trump launched an airstrike in Syria intended to limit the leaders ability to continue such attacks.
Gianforte strongly commended the presidents response, while Quist didnt indicate whether he supported it.
Anyone that would release sarin gas on the inhabitants of the world is unbelievable, Quist said. But again I think we have to exercise caution and I think any acts like this really need congressional approval before we go on.
Gianforte, who has consistently aligned with Trumps agenda, noted that on foreign policy, Im not endorsing every single thing.
He criticized former President Barack Obamas policies in Syria and supports increased military spending, saying, I believe that we achieve peace in the world through a strong military.
Neither candidate named any specific strategic goals regarding U.S. involvement, or lack thereof, in the war-torn country.
The latest chemical attack was not the first for Assad, but Obama was notably resistant to calls that the U.S. get involved, fearing another prolonged military engagement in the Middle East.
Yet, Wicks departed from conventional Libertarian views on international affairs, suggesting that America increase its involvement in the conflict. Saying the U.S. pulled out of Iraq too quickly, he argued for more actively arming Syrian groups that align with U.S. interests, and said he supportS continued American bomb strikes.
We need to make a statement that they wont be tolerated, he said.
Both Gianforte and Quist left their options open regarding congressional authorization of the use of force, should Assad commit additional sarin-gas attacks.
Thats kind of speculation. I guess Id have to wait and see what the situation is, Quist said. I would have to question any knee-jerk reaction that would get America into a prolonged and protracted conflict.
The only reason to go to war is to protect Americas interests and I would have to know there is a direct and imminent threat to American interests to vote for that, Gianforte responded. Another gassing in Syria would be outrageous, but I would hope it would allow us to bring a world consensus against the dictator, Assad.
President Trump has appeared to shift away from the generally non-interventionist stances he promoted during his campaign, and last month said he was sending an armada into the Sea of Japan in response to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-uns recent provocations.
Quist, who called national security the countrys top priority, didnt criticize any of Trumps specific actions regarding the countrys ongoing development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. But the Democrat said he would push the administration to err on the side of caution as tensions escalate on the Korean Peninsula.
We have to be careful on trying to incite and take tough stances and kind of upping the rhetoric that could push our countries close to war, Quist said. He added, Theres an old phrase that You dont poke a sleeping bear.
Gianforte stressed that the U.S. needs to exercise every diplomatic channel available to resolve the situation, but said Congress should be willing to take unilateral action if the threat is imminent. He declined to specify what circumstances would qualify as an imminent threat.
At the end of the day, if pushed and if we believe there is an imminent threat, we should keep all options on the table, he said.
Wicks, again bucking the Libertarian Partys non-interventionist policies, said North Korea has already crossed the line, and that hes ready vote to authorize the use of force by the Trump administration.
I actually think were probably past that point, Wicks said, adding that he would support direct military action to assassinate the North Korean dictator.
Along with most Democrats and some congressional Republicans, Quist said a special prosecutor is needed to investigate the possibility of collusion between officials within the Trump campaign and Russia.
We need to have a special prosecutor that is independent and not under the influence of anybody, he said. Trump wants to appoint someone who is a close friend and advisor of his to head up the FBI, I would have serious problems with that.
Following a series of revelations during the past two weeks, including a report by the Washington Post that says Trump asked his former FBI director to end his investigation into Michael Flynn, a former top advisor to the president, calls for more aggressive investigations have extended to include several top Republicans in Congress.
During a May 10 interview, Gianforte said at the time that he did not support any additional probes beyond those being led by the Republican controlled House and Senate.
If theres sufficient evidence to indicate [Russian] interference, then there should be an in-depth investigation.
But, he added, he wasnt privy to the content of recent congressional hearings, as his attention has been focused elsewhere.
Ive been traveling the state, visiting with Montanans and making sure I could be representing them well, he said. Again, the only data I have is from the newspapers.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at [email protected]