There was virtually no discussion of foreign policy at the Republican National Convention. This was entirely appropriate given the crisis and priority of domestic issues. Yet I haven’t even seen a single article discussing this issue at all, and it is going to be important.
Here is the key factor: Mitt Romney, the Romney-Ryan ticket, and Republican congressional candidates have a variety of choices on foreign policy. Some of them can be bad, and because there are different and complex issues, the line taken will not — and arguably should not — be consistent. And certainly their plans will be lied about. Vice President Joe Biden, whose credentials speak for themselves, claims that President Romney would attack Iran and Syria. I don’t think he would attack either and am glad that he wouldn’t.
But think of what Biden is doing: If you are going to denounce your opponent for possibly attacking Iran some day, doesn’t that mean that President Obama has indeed ruled out “keeping all the options on the table”? And also, the administration doesn’t ever seem to get the point that the issue is not how much it intervenes in Syria, but rather whose side is it on. Right now it is mainly on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood and even the Salafis. Romney doesn’t have to raise the level of intervention at all, just make sure that not one dollar, bullet, or gun goes to radical anti-American Islamists in Syria. And if you aren’t sure, you don’t give them anything.
But what should a Romney administration do? Of course, there are the general principles: make America strong and respected again, support the soldiers, and help friends and make enemies sorry that they are enemies. There must be a defense of legitimate U.S. interests and an end to apologies. Popularity is okay, but respect and trust are far more important. Avoid either isolationism or excessive interventionism and get over the democracy-solves-all naivete. Don’t be chomping at the bit to go to war with Iran as a supposed panacea.
These principles are important, but they don’t necessarily tell us how to do things. An average Arab citizen put it best in private conversation: “We don’t want an American president who acts like an Arab. We want an American president who acts like an American.” The old diplomatic virtues of credibility, protection of national interests, preservation of alliances and promises, recognition of friends and enemies, and so on need to be reinstalled.
The easiest theme is to stop helping anti-American dictators in Venezuela and several other Latin American countries, the Muslim Brotherhood (everywhere, including Hamas as the ruler of the Gaza Strip), and Hizballah, as well as many small terrorist groups and al-Qaeda.
The basic grand strategy for the Middle East should be to form and lead a very broad and very loose — not institutionalized — alignment of forces opposing Islamism. This means showing real leadership to the Europeans; in fact, many European countries are better on this issue than Obama. It also means supporting Israel, of course, but there is a long list of others:
Governments: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain (despite its faults), Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya (we hope Obama can claim credit for that one), Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia (despite its faults), and the United Arab Emirates. You can add some other former Soviet Muslim-majority republics.
Opposition and democratic moderate movements: Iran, Lebanon, Syria (where the United States is supporting the Islamists!), Tunisia, and Turkey (see Syria, above). Let’s also keep in mind the Berbers, Christians, and Kurds in general as communities that overwhelmingly link their survival to fighting revolutionary Islamism. Such ethnic communities can also be found in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This cooperation to defeat radical Islamism, however it disguises itself, should be the backbone of U.S. policy. It can be implemented in a thousand different ways. Post-victory planning, which better start soon (at least among independent analysts), needs to define these.
There are some Middle East problem countries that require special consideration.
It is time for a withdrawal from Afghanistan and a clever policy of backing — with a mixture of covert, financial, and other assets — those who will fight to keep the Taliban out of power. Afghanistan is not going to be democratic or a nice place. But it must be a place that does not threaten America again.
Yemen is a mess and, like Afghanistan, will continue to be a mess. The U.S. policy should cooperate to the maximum extent with Yemen on fighting terrorism without illusions about the nature of the regime and its willingness to betray the United States at any moment.