Any presidential candidate who seeks to prove his foreign policy bona fides by opining on the Middle East should first be made to repeat over and over: “I won’t pretend to know more than I really do.”
In his big foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute last Monday, Mitt Romney tried to use the Middle East to show how he’d display firmer global leadership than President Obama. Clearly, he thought the administration’s handling of the terror attack in Benghazi provided him with a political opening.
But rather than display a muscular vision, Romney’s speech was a muddle that revealed a real misunderstanding of the region. The speech reeked of the willful blindness about Mideast realities that produced the worst failures of George W. Bush.
That was immediately clear in the overhyping of the tragedy in Libya, about which the Republicans hastened to hold hearings Tuesday in the House Intelligence Committee. Romney tried to link the Libya attack to 9/11 (“last month our nation was attacked again”) and even to World War II.
Romney painted the current Middle East with a broad brush as engaged in a struggle between “democracy and despotism” (just like the battles against the Nazis). And he blamed Obama for failing to help the democrats triumph. This is a page straight out of the neoconservative narrative that led to the Iraq invasion, which was supposed to democratize the region.
Only problem: This narrative was wrong under Bush, and it misreads events now.
The Arab Spring was due to forces that had little to do with the United States, and, contrary to Romney’s inference, the violence certainly wasn’t caused by Obama.
A new, huge, generation of youths, frustrated by joblessness and corruption, rebelled against autocratic leaders. The ouster of these despots gave no guarantee that democracy would flourish.
Where elections have been held — in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen — Islamists have triumphed, because religious groups are the best organized. Non-Islamists are divided, and the liberals of Tahrir Square have been marginalized.
In other words, promoting Arab democracy is no policy panacea. Moreover, the autocrats that remain — who rule the countries of the Arab Gulf — are cited by Romney as America’s friends. They bitterly complained when Obama supported the Tahrir Square rebels.
Romney, too, would be caught in the contradiction between promoting “democratic values” and maintaining friendships with the oil sheikhs.
So Romney’s effort to paint the region as monolithic — with good guys fighting evil — doesn’t describe what Obama faces, or what Romney would face. Perhaps that’s why Romney’s Mideast policy prescriptions, for the most part, differ very little from Obama’s. There were only two specifics where they seriously diverged. (I don’t take serious his critique of Obama’s policy on Israel; in reality, our security relationship with Israel is still incredibly tight.)
One of those differences concerns Syria, where I agree with Romney that Obama should put more resources into identifying rebels we could work with and helping them obtain arms. Romney, however, has backtracked on campaign statements that America should arm them and would outsource the task to the Gulf States, who are more likely to send weapons to Islamists than to non-Islamists. In other words, Romney is pushing a shift that would probably help bring Islamists to power.
And then there is Iran, where Romney insists the United States should prevent Tehran from having the “capacity” to make a bomb, not an actual weapon (the formulation Obama uses). Romney has adopted the red line of his good friend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which could draw the United States into a new Mideast war in the coming year.
No U.S. leader can make war on another country’s timeline; Romney’s formulation is either cynical politicking — or he vastly underestimates the costs and limited benefits of such an adventure. My guess: He would backtrack on Iran if elected, and this speech was simply an effort to gain political mileage from the attack in Benghazi, whose importance has been inflated far more than it deserves.
Yes, it appears that embassy security there was sadly deficient. However, it’s not news that militia groups with links to al-Qaida have flourished in the Libyan anarchy that prevails since Moammar Gadhafi’s fall.
Every Libya expert knew that his fall would produce chaos, since the tribal country has few institutions. Yet in Romney’s “democrat vs. despot” constellation, the despot had to go.
Does anyone imagine that, even with more attention, the United States (or any outsider) could build new Libyan security forces overnight? Has anyone noticed the failure of nation-building under the last two presidents?
The good news, despite the Libyan hype, is that the country has few people and lots of oil. Its elected government, which isn’t Islamist, may be able to buy off the militias. The United States has the capacity to help Libyans track down al-Qaida wannabes, or linkups who keep up the fight.
But the truth is, Libya doesn’t matter that much strategically, despite the political grandstanding on the issue. What matters is that the next president have a broad grasp of the changes in the region. Judging from his speech, Romney hasn’t managed that yet.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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