How is that to be done? He answers: “More economic development”; “better education”; “gender equality”; and the “rule of law” by helping “these nations create civil societies.” Romney is not going to point out that the problem is the growing rule of [Sharia] law.
Obama responds with a…cheap trick: “Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida….”
If al-Qaida is the biggest geopolitical threat facing America in the world than the United States has nothing to worry about but occasional terrorist attacks by a relatively weak group that cannot seize and hold power anywhere. In other words, Romney has one hand tied behind his back. Whether this is a necessary strategy for him given the situation or a mistake I will leave to the readers.
Obama also caught Romney’s mistake—which I pointed out at the time—as implying there should still be U.S. troops in Iraq. He also got across the snide, but effective point, “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy.” Obama continued that Romney had opposed a nuclear treaty with Russia and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In other words, the framework imposed on the foreign policy discussion favors Obama. He is saying: You see, I am making these problems go away so the United States doesn’t have to fight. Romney must bring the psychologically unwelcome news that problems aren’t going away.
In the most implicitly funny remark of the night, Obama could even say: “What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map.”
So now Romney was on the defensive, not so much because of a lack of skill or of good arguments but because he is trapped in the need to sound optimistic and not promise costs and casualties in comparison to Obama’s “good news” that everything is going great. He does respond that he views Iran as the greatest national security threat, adding, “I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin.”
The real problem is the wearing of rose-colored glasses when it comes to the Middle East.
Romney tries to get across the point—perhaps too detailed for viewers—that Obama failed to get an agreement with Iraq on the status of U.S. forces. Instead, there is a long back and forth about how many troops who wanted to keep in Iraq. Obama’s interruptions prevent Romney didn’t get his point across while Obama repeated the accurate claim that his opponent said there should still be U.S. troops there.
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 needed 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 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.”
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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