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Mitt Romney gave a speech at the Virginia Military Institute today which focuses on U.S. Middle East policy. There are some good points in this speech that are definite steps forward. Romney sounded like a president should, someone who grasps power politics, deterrence, credibility, supporting allies and opposing enemies, and all the basic principles that have been largely vanished by the Obama Administration in exchange for unworkable and dangerous concepts.
This speech will no doubt consolidate his supporters. Yet without challenging President Barack Obama’s policy with more detail or confronting the revolutionary Islamist threat more directly, can Romney persuade people that his strategy would be much better than that of the man under whose presidency Usama bin Ladin was killed (but al-Qaida and the Taliban weren’t defeated) even though Egypt was lost as a U.S. ally? Presumably that will come in the foreign policy presidential debate.
The best parts were on Israel, Syria, how Obama empowered America’s enemies, and the importance for American leadership. Romney also makes it clear that America is not the villain of the world, a point often obscured–to say the least–by the current president.
He begins by quoting former Lexington, Virginia, resident George Marshall, who led the U.S. military during World War II and later became secretary of state and secretary of defense:
“The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.” Those words were true in his time — and they still echo in ours.
Romney views President Barack Obama as vulnerable on his international leadership, or rather lack of it. Romney argues that Obama’s policies are contributing to regional instability and future wars in the Middle East:
Our friends and allies across the globe do not want less American leadership. They want more—more of our moral support, more of our security cooperation, more of our trade, and more of our assistance in building free societies and thriving economies.
The attacks on America last month…are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East….
Romney further says that the cause of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya was not a video:
[It was] terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West.
Here, Romney does not recognize the systematic revolutionary Islamist challenge to U.S. interests. We are back on the safe ground — on which Obama basically agrees — that the problem is just al-Qaeda, rather than also the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafist groups. (Obama’s problem is that having said he already defeated al-Qaeda, he cannot admit that this supposedly destroyed group just assassinated an American ambassador.)
If Romney wants to focus his policy on just al-Qaeda, how can he compete with Obama’s ability to point out that he killed Osama bin Laden? One could even argue that Romney’s approach — the problem is bad terrorists who kill Americans — plays into Obama’s hands.
Obviously, Romney should not foreclose his options in dealing with Egypt, for example, by declaring its regime to be an enemy — despite the fact that even Obama has admitted it is no longer an ally. Yet Romney could have done better in defining the situation.
But here is the best phrase in the speech:
The greater tragedy of it all is that we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East—friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us. Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our President is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity. As one Syrian woman put it, “We will not forget that you forgot about us.
This suggests that Romney “gets it,” regarding the need to support real moderate or at least anti-Islamist forces.
So what would Romney do if he became president? He says:
I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf the region — and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination. For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions — not just words — that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated.
Romney is basically saying: I will be credibly tougher. The problem is that Obama can say that he has done these specific things. He does not deal with the wider strategic problem of Iranian ambitions or attitudes toward the opposition in that country. There is no substantive difference with Obama’s stated policy, nor is there a discussion — it is understandable that Romney wants to avoid this — of how he would view an attack on Iran or even the possibility of containing Iran. His statement is thus reasonable, but not compelling in proving that Romney would do a better job.
His second point is that he would:
… Champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world.
He adds that Obama has not signed any new trade agreements. It is not clear how trade agreements would affect the Middle East situation.
No friend of America will question our commitment to support them… no enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them… and no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America’s capability to back up our words….I will support friends across the Middle East who share our values, but need help defending them and their sovereignty against our common enemies.
But what countries does Romney have in mind? He has also stated the issue in a way that traps himself. Who shares U.S. values but needs help in defending themselves? Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and the smaller Gulf emirates need U.S. help, but could not be said to share American values. So who is he talking about?
In Libya, I will support the Libyan people’s efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them, and I will vigorously pursue the terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.
Again, though, the Obama administration has also worked to help form a government in Libya and promises to catch the terrorists. We once more face the issue of Romney asserting that he will be tougher and do a better job but with no clear differentiation on his policy. Those who understand that he would be more determined are already voting for him. How would this convince anyone else?
In Egypt, I will use our influence — including clear conditions on our aid — to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid.
This is nice rhetoric but again it is identical to Obama policy declarations. The one new point is that U.S. aid would be conditioned on fair treatment of minorities and maintenance of the treaty with Israel.
On aid, Romney explained that he would reform it
to create incentives for good governance, free enterprise, and greater trade…. And I will make it clear to the recipients of our aid that, in return for our material support, they must meet the responsibilities of every decent modern government—to respect the rights of all of their citizens, including women and minorities… to ensure space for civil society, a free media, political parties, and an independent judiciary… and to abide by their international commitments to protect our diplomats and our property.
The most original statement is on Syria:
In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran — rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.
This speaks of more activism in helping the rebels and — most important — the moderates among them. He puts the civil war in the context of combating Iranian influence, but to what extent would this justify backing anyone — Salafists and Muslim Brothers — who might overthrow the regime and “one day lead” Syria?
On Afghanistan, he says that he:
… will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
Yet what does this mean? Romney opposed “a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.”
Romney makes a similar hint on Iraq where he says
costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al-Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran. And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The President tried—and failed—to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.
This hints that Romney would consider keeping U.S. troops there longer. Yet does it make sense for Americans to keep fighting a war on behalf of Afghan allies who often kill U.S. soldiers in pursuit of a stability that is unlikely to come to that country? This could end up being even worse than Obama’s policy.
Finally, Romney criticizes Obama’s policy on Israel:
The President explicitly stated that his goal was to put `daylight’ between the United States and Israel. And he has succeeded. This is a dangerous situation that has set back the hope of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries, especially Iran….I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the president has failed…. In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new President will bring the chance to begin anew.
This position implies that a new president could make dramatic progress in the peace process — which is certainly untrue.
Thus, there are shortcomings in Romney’s position but it suggests—perhaps too subtly for most listeners– that as president he would be on the right track, backing anti-Islamists in Middle East governments and oppositions against revolutionary Islamist, anti-American forces.
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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