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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.
Of course, there are the general principles: make America strong and respected again; support the soldiers; help friends and make enemies sorry that they are enemies. There must be an end to apologies and the defense of legitimate U.S. interests. 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 are important but these principles 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, national interests’ protection, preserving alliances and promises, recognizing 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-Qaida.
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. These include showing real leadership to the Europeans, many of whom 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 and financial as well as 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 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.
Qatar must also be treated with great caution. For reasons of local pride and ambition, it likes to stir up trouble and often supports Islamists, as well as playing footsy with Iran. Qatar should be treated with extreme suspicion not because its interests are different from America’s (everybody’s are) but because it likes to play the role of joker in the deck of cards.
Unfortunately, there is a parallel here with the far more important case of Pakistan. This is a headache without resolution. On one hand, the United States must ensure that the regime is not overthrown by radical Islamists. On the other hand, the United States cannot trust Pakistan at all to cooperate in fighting terrorism. Indeed, Pakistan is a major world sponsor of terrorism, not only against India but also to help the Taliban in Afghanistan, even—as we’ve vividly seen—al-Qaida! As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan the relationship with Pakistan should be reduced.