Romney’s Structural Handicap: An In-Depth Analysis of The Foreign Policy Issue in the Presidential Election
Obama then listed his program as one of counterterrorism, support for Israel, and — a bold falsehood — protection of religious minorities and women. Well, the last point is part of his stated program but he just didn’t do anything to implement it at a time when those groups are facing growing threats. He added helping Middle East countries develop economically but that the United States couldn’t do “nation building” in that region.
Both candidates agreed on what is a major fallacy: that U.S. policy needs to concentrate on economic development of the region. The underlying concept is that by raising living standards, extremism will be made to go away. Some Middle Eastern countries have a lot of oil revenue (for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Libya) yet still are mired in extremism, violence, and anti-Americanism.
Others are poor. Regrettable as that poverty is, how is the United States going to help with economic development in a country like Egypt, given its lack of resources, non-productive political culture, and rule by the Muslim Brotherhood? It can only put in money as a form of political bribe, or as an effort to shore up the status quo. For example, the massive sums — unprecedented on a per capita basis- — poured into the Palestinian Authority have not brought peace or real prosperity. Still, the fiction of an economic development panacea is maintained.
Next, the debate turned to Syria. Obama provided comforting pabulum about his organizing the “international community” and calling for dictator Bashar al-Assad’s ouster. He added that the United States had provided humanitarian assistance and is “helping the opposition organize,” especially “mobilizing the moderate forces.”
This is comic since in fact U.S. influence has been used to help the radical forces but the mass media has not told voters about that. Obama also stressed the limit of U.S. involvement, including no military entanglement.
So what could Romney answer? That the crisis is terrible but provides an opportunity:
Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world….It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally, Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us.
But Obama can say that he wants to remove Assad. Romney then states that the United States should identify “responsible parties” in Syria, organize them, and bring them together to form a government.
Yet, of course, Obama had already done this by creating a Syrian leadership council. What Romney could have pointed out is that this council was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, that Obama helped push for an anti-American leadership. He didn’t.
In fact, he implied that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey wanted American leadership. Of course, the last two are following U.S. leadership, which has not forbidden them from backing the Brotherhood. And the Saudis, because they are against the Brotherhood, are supporting the Salafis!
Since Romney focuses on the point about leadership, it is easy for Obama to claim that he has been providing leadership on the issue. His claim is reasonable. The problem is not the lack of leadership but leading in a disastrous direction, the creation of another Egypt or even Gaza Strip.
As Romney correctly said, U.S. objectives should be “to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us,” implying — but not in a way clear to viewers — that arms should be going to moderates not radicals.
Yet here is Romney’s second big dilemma, the first being not naming the threat as revolutionary Islamism (as opposed to just al-Qaida). For reasons we all can understand — however we evaluate them — he didn’t want to accuse Obama of helping America’s enemies, that is of strengthening the forces of revolutionary Islamism.
Without that element, it was hard for Romney to make a case. He simply falls into what might be considered Obama’s trap: America needs to be a leader, work with its partners, and help organize the opposition. Obama has done that on Syria. That’s not the problem.
Obama then tells an interesting historical analogy on which we should reflect:
I think that America has to stand with democracy. The notion that we would have tanks run over those young people who were in Tahrir Square that is not the kind of American leadership that John F. Kennedy talked about 50 years ago.
Kennedy, of course, was the man who, faced with demonstrations in South Vietnam, covertly organized a coup and installed a pro-U.S. government that was in effect a dictatorship. He didn’t say that since the Communists had so much support they should run the country. Kennedy put the emphasis on national interest, not democracy promotion. Of course, the Vietnam situation did not end well but how many viewers will know that Kennedy did the opposite of what Obama claimed?
Obama then laid out his “red lines” on Egypt: the government must protect Christians, women, and the peace treaty with Israel, as well as cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism. None of that will happen and if Obama is reelected he won’t do anything about it.
With relief, Obama quickly dove back to the economic development solution. Young people want jobs, good schools, and nice housing. And this is what his policy has been helping on by…“organizing entrepreneurship conferences.”
I cannot let his next remark go by without noting the irony:
One of the challenges over the last decade is we’ve done experiments in nation building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and we’ve neglected, for example, developing our own economy, our own energy sectors, our own education system. And it’s very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we’re not doing what we need to do [at home]….
Who has been the president for the last four years, one might ask. But back to the Middle East. The moderator asked Romney if he would have stuck with Egyptian dictator Husni Mubarak. Romney said “no” but could only weakly add that he supported Obama’s policy at the time but “wish we’d have had a better vision of the future.”
Wish? First of all, there was an alternative policy, backed no less by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of working with the military to get rid of Mubarak personally, make some reforms, but to keep the regime in power. But Romney probably doesn’t understand this and he can’t say this, since the current debate doesn’t sit well with supporting a dictatorship. (On how Obama aided Islamist triumphs when he had alternatives, see here.)
Second, rather than wishing for better foresight, Romney could have listed the ways in which Obama helped make a Muslim Brotherhood victory more likely. But that lies outside his own strategy. He even added, “When there are elections, people tend to vote for peace.”