Ask Romney This: What Will You Do About the Middle East?

(Oct. 10, 2012) Over the final month of the campaign, CJR will run a series of posts under the headline “Ask Obama This” and “Ask Romney This,” suggesting questions that reporters should pose to the presidential candidates. The first installment focused on President Obama and his jobs plan. This one on Mitt Romney and foreign policy.

It’s complicated. It’s inseparable from US domestic politics. And it can shoulder aside every other White House priority.

Those three realities about the Middle East have dogged American presidents since Harry Truman, who, when warned by his State Department advisers that recognizing the new state of Israel would have long-term foreign policy implications, reportedly replied: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

The 1973 Yom Kippur war put an end to Richard Nixon’s ambitious peace effort, the Iran hostage crisis destroyed the Carter presidency, and the Beirut Marine barracks bombing and the so-called Iran-Contra Affair deeply embarrassed Ronald Reagan. Those are just a few examples of how the Middle East can be the tail that wags the presidential dog. As The Washington Post’s Patrick Tyler titled his excellent book on US engagement with the region, the Middle East has been nothing but A World of Trouble for American presidents.

Like so many other presidential hopefuls, Mitt Romney says he will, as the headline on his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed put it, set “a new course for the Middle East.” The core problem, he argues in the article, is that the US is “at the mercy of events rather than shaping them.” Yet reporters who know the region will tell you it’s hard to remember a time when that wasn’t the case, the Camp David Accords being the one possible exception to the rule. The Bush administration did, as promised, create “a new Middle East,” but I suspect this is not the Middle East Bush & Co. had in mind.

The primary foreign policy manifesto of the Romney campaign is titled, “An American Century—A Strategy To Secure America’s Enduring Interests And Ideals.” The idea is to seed American “values” around the world, and particularly in what the Bush administration dubbed the “Greater Middle East,” a term the Romney campaign has embraced (it includes Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with what we traditionally call the Middle East). This broad approach is built around what is often called “American Exceptionalism,” and on the notion that, as Ronald Reagan once declared, “We are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”

Not everyone else in the world buys that. In fact, America’s view of itself as the world’s savior has a lot to do with our miserable favorability ratings in the Muslim world, since not everyone wants to be told we know best. So the first question is: What do you say to people overseas who tell you American Exceptionalism is just American arrogance? In his September 29 weekly podcast on American Exceptionalism, Romney gives the big picture (“I’ll call terrorism what it is”), and in his Oct. 8 foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Academy Institute, he repeatedly emphasized his belief that “we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East.” But both leave plenty of ground for reporters to question exactly what a Greater Middle East policy in a Romney administration might look like.

Do those American values he seeks to impart include democratic elections? If so, how will his administration “shape” the outcome to prevent anti-American regimes from emerging? And what will he do if the “wrong” people are elected—leaders who might think their values trump American values?

Do those values Romney favors include human rights? Obama took a pragmatic, some would say cynical, approach to the uprising in Bahrain. Would Romney support a democracy movement there? If not, why not?

Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, gave the big foreign policy address at the GOP convention. American Exceptionalism and American values played a central role in that administration’s approach to the Middle East. To what extent is Bush foreign policy a model for Romney? What does he believe were the advantages and disadvantages of the Bush approach?

“Only strength and clarity can keep the peace,” Romney said in his Sept. 29 podcast. That sounds a lot like the post-9/11 call for a foreign policy built on “military strength and moral clarity” issued by the Project for the New American Century, the neoconservative group widely credited with influencing Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

Which raises the obvious question: How will a Romney administration demonstrate “strength and clarity” without getting the US bogged down in another costly war?

Some other topics worth probing:

THE ARAB SPRING: We Americans tend to see the world in black and white: Good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. But the Middle East is full of shades of gray. Witness Egypt. Romney is committed to using “the full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have too long known only corruption and oppression.” So does that mean he will support the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, duly elected to replace the oppressive Mubarak regime, or seek to undermine it?

In the three countries where the old regimes have been overthrown—Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya—the Romney campaign white paper says, “Mitt will make available technical assistance to governments and transitional bodies to promote democracy, good governance, and sound financial management.” It would be interesting to know how that is different from USAID and other US government assistance programs already under way—and how his plans would be affected by the significant cuts to US foreign assistance advocated by his running mate,  Paul Ryan.

SYRIA: In his foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Academy, Romney said he will “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.” Does that include surface-to-air missiles? If so, how will he ensure they are not used against Israeli or US civilian aircraft now or later? How will he identify those groups that “share our values?” How will he keep the new weapons out of the hands of those who do not? Ronald Reagan called those fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers. Today, we call some of them the Taliban. How will Romney avoid similar blowback if he arms the Syrian opposition?

TURKEY: Should the recent Syrian attack on Turkish soil trigger a NATO military response? And would he encourage Turkey to intervene as a US surrogate (Turkey was the colonial master in the Arab world until World War I).

An oft-repeated Romney campaign talking point in recent weeks is that Obama is “naïve” about the danger of Islamists coming to power in the region. How will that affect America’s alliance with Turkey, given its Islamist prime minister? (Turkey is often cited as a model for the region’s emerging democracies).

IRAN: In the last election, John McCain was videotaped singing “Bomb, Bomb, Iran.” Short of that idea, what does Romney think he can do to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon that is not already being done? Or does he intend to “Bomb, Bomb Iran” (or encourage Israel to do so)? And if there is an attack on Iran, what does he see as the potential repercussions?

AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN: The Romney campaign’s policy paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan states that “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.”

How exactly would that leverage be applied? Would a Romney administration withdraw aid to the Karzai government if it fails to enact the reforms Romney requires? Would US troops remain or withdraw? An assault on the US embassy in Kabul and various other anti-US attacks have been traced back to elements of the Pakistani government. Should the US sever its relationship with Pakistan and restore the pre-9/11 sanctions? Should it support the civilian leadership against the military, or vice versa?

IRAQ: By any measure, Iraq is problematic. It remains in a state of low-scale civil war, Iranian influence is prevalent, and Al Qaeda is restoring its foothold. Romney’s white paper promises to “use the broad array of our foreign-policy tools—diplomatic, economic, and military—to establish a lasting relationship with Iraq.” How does that change the current policy? What will be the long-term US military involvement? What of Iran’s influence over the Shiite government now in charge (a by-product of the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein)?

PALESTINE: While Romney can be forgiven for feeling that any hope of compromise on the Israel-Palestine issue is, as he is heard saying in a controversial video, “just wistful [sic] thinking,” he also added that “The idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world.” If that is the case, it is worth asking Romney, Doesn’t that conflict with his assertion that America must shape events in the region?

ISRAEL: And finally, when Romney says in that Journal op-ed that there should be “no daylight” between the US and Israel, which Israel is he talking about? Prime Minister Netanyahu? Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has been distancing himself from Netanyahu? The former chiefs of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Shin Bet internal security forces, and the Mossad spy agency, who say Netanyahu’s policy on Iran could be catastrophic for Israel?

Romney argues that the US needs a “coherent strategy” on the Middle East. It is the job of the media to get beyond the generalities and tease out the details.

Correction: Mitt Romney’s Oct. 8 foreign policy speech was given at the Virginia Military Institute, which we incorrectly called Virginia Military Academy in our first reference to it in this story. CJR regrets the error.

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