Probing for a weakness to exploit, Mitt Romney’s campaign has turned to attacking President Obama on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Romney claims U.S. leadership is lacking in the region, and that U.S. interests are suffering as a result. He points to recent outbreaks of extremist Islamic anti-American sentiments in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, and to civilians being slaughtered by the Assad regime in Syria, as evidence of U.S. impotence in the region. He blusters on Iran, insinuating that the Obama administration has withheld support from our stalwart ally Israel, while failing to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Mitt Romney argues that the Middle East is not how we would like it to be, and offers that as an indictment of Obama, but fails to make the case for how he would make it better. Romney’s proscriptions open onto worse scenarios. His policies could push us from the frying pan to the fire.
On Iran Romney offers absolutely nothing new, but that hasn’t stopped him from criticizing the President. Is he opposed to the harsh sanctions that the U.S. has led much of the world to imposing on Iran? Of course not, since they represent the only overt means available to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, short of forceful military actions that our own Pentagon acknowledges would likely lead the U.S. into another major regional war. Does Romney advocate taking the U.S. into another Middle East war? Of course not, because the American electorate is not prepared to support that currently. It’s clear that both the President and his challenger support covert actions against Iran, but by definition they can’t really be debated. There isn’t an inch of daylight between Romney and Obama on their stated positions toward Iran, so instead Romney tries to attack Obama on how those positions are stated.
A Romney spokesperson interviewed by Andrea Mitchell acknowledged that Obama and Romney are backing the exact same policy toward Iran regarding nuclear weapons; prevention not containment. President Obama publicly asked Mitt Romney recently if he was now arguing for going to war with Iran, but his spokesman ducked and covered rather than answering. Romney, he said, believes that the potential use of American military force against Iran must remain a credible threat in order for diplomacy to hopefully succeed. That of course is consistent with the stated policy of the U.S. government, with the President clearly stating that “all options remain on the table” whenever he is asked about the possible use of force against Iran. So what does that leave Romney with as a political line of attack against Obama?
Romney’s spokesperson argued that no one really believes that Obama actually means it when he says all options remain on the table. Pause here for full implications to sink in. Barack Obama holds the office of President of the United States. His words are official U.S. policy, and America’s friends and foes alike weigh them while determining their own course of action during international conflicts. Surely by now Mitt Romney understands that not only is Barack Obama the United States President today, there is at least a decent chance he will remain our President for four more years. If Mitt Romney believes that the possible use of American force against Iran during this nuclear crisis must remain a credible threat in order for diplomacy to succeed, then his campaign just undermined the very policy he claims we should pursue. Romney’s position is incoherent. But it doesn’t stop there.
Mitt Romney argues that American leadership is lacking in the Middle East. He also belittles Obama for the naiveté he supposedly showed for starting his first term in office showing a willingness to negotiate directly with Iran over issues outstanding between our nations. In doing so Romney displays a key ignorance over how American diplomacy works. President Obama’s oft stated willingness to deal in good faith with Iran, if that good faith were reciprocated, was a crucial factor in gaining international support for strong economic sanctions against Iran. The U.S. can’t force sovereign nations to back economic sanctions against Iran, they must agree to. Had President Obama pursued a bolted door policy toward Iran from day one, it would have been far more difficult, and in some significant instances impossible, for him to have won broad based international support for the economic sanctions now in place against Iran.
So here again Romney’s position is incoherent. The sanctions policy that Romney says he supports against Iran, was enabled by Obama first making an effort “to give peace a chance” before moving on to harsher alternative when Iran failed to respond positively. Mitt Romney’s anti-diplomacy tough guy posturing only undercuts his own stated diplomatic policy objectives in building a broad coalition against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
There is nowhere that Mitt Romney’s Middle East policy is more obviously incoherent than it is in regards to current unrest in the region, and the Arab Spring. If there is one word that Mitt Romney loves to elevate above all others during this campaign season, that word is “freedom”. Freedom he says is the well spring of human progress. Freedom is afoot in the Middle East but it seldom comes in an antiseptic package. Our own American road toward greater freedom has not been free of strife. Basic rights have been fought over in America since a Revolution gave birth to our nation. Why would the path be smooth in Libya, Syria, or Egypt?
Romney’s foreign policy team is dominated by Neo Con ideologues who were in ascendancy under George W. Bush. Ridding the Arab world of dictatorships was a cause they heartedly embraced, not only as a noble cause, but as a tenet of U.S. foreign policy in pursuit of U.S. interests. The lack of liberty in the Middle East, they intoned, fed unrest on the Arab street and pushed frustrated youth into the hands of Islamic militants who blamed the West for the ills of their own corrupt societies.
The American invasion of Iraq was defended by Neo Cons as a mission to help bring Democracy to the Arab world (especially after weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq were found to be sorely lacking). What followed that invasion was chaos and bloodshed on a scale that totally dwarfs anything that has happened in Libya or Syria to date. Our invasion further inflamed Islamic extremists throughout the Muslim world. The Democracy we left behind in Iraq is seriously flawed by any standard we would use here at home. Yet Mitt Romney will not disown it, nor argue that the people of Iraq were better off under an iron fisted dictator.
Anti-American protests broke out in Iraq as well in response to the Anti-Muslim propaganda film that recently was produced in the United States. Iraq is also on warm terms with its Shiite neighbor, our adversary Iran. Still as with Egypt, Mitt Romney won’t characterize Iraq as an enemy of America. America was resolute in fighting the Iraq war. How much more leadership, how much more strength, how much more money and how many more lives should America have committed to bring about results that still would be no better than the Arab Spring?
Compare what was accomplished in Iraq after ten plus years of American occupation, to the situation that confronts us in Libya and Egypt today, less than two years after dictatorships were replaced by democracies in those nations. Would there be less anti-American sentiments in those nations today if the United States had fought to thwart the Arab Spring that brought increased liberty to those people? Would we have more leverage in Egypt now had we stuck by Hosni Mubarak until he was lynched, or until Egypt dissolved into a Civil War like Syria’s?
The Obama Administration rightfully recognized a turning tide of history inside the Middle East, and wisely chose not to rage against it to no avail. As a result we still have open and even productive channels with the governments the Arab Spring spawned, imperfect as they might be. That was not a preordained outcome in a revolutionary climate. It took effective American leadership to accomplish. We all saw what happened to Iran when the U.S. clung to the Shah far too long until the Iranian people deposed him.
Mitt Romney bemoans that we don’t retain enough influence over Egypt’s current government, while simultaneously lamenting the fact that Egypt’s first free democratic elections resulted in a Muslim Brotherhood President. That position, once more, is fundamentally incoherent. Unless Mitt Romney is prepared to advocate for yet another American Middle East invasion, it is dubious that bad mouthing the current elected Egyptian government will lead to greater U.S. influence inside Egypt.
Israel is counting on Egypt to honor their mutual peace treaty in turbulent times; Mitt Romney might want to reconsider the advantage of Egypt having a government that is credible with non extremist Islamists, which the U.S. retains real ties with. Mubarak, like Iran’s Shah before him, isn’t coming back. Israel won’t be helped by demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood, and America wouldn’t win respect under a Mitt Romney