Mitt Romney, like GWB before he was elected and some might add after he was elected, knows little about foreign policy. Therefore, he has to rely on others for his foreign policy. But this, as we saw with Bush when he was faced with contending advice from Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfled versus Secretary of State, Colin Powell, becomes dangerous, in a time of crisis (post 9/11) or, as we see now, major transitions in the Middle East.
Facing the next presidential debate with President Barack Obama, he has decided to remedy that perception. But, at the end of the day, it looks like deja vu all over again?
“The 21st century can and must be an American century.” Romney’s major foreign policy speech reclaims George W Bush and Republican neocons “New American Century”, speaking now for an “American Century”. Good for the US and its friends and allies who have “a longing for American leadership in the Middle East”. Who are they: Gulf rulers, “our partners”, who fear the spread of the Arab Spring “virus” to their countries? Remnants of former dictatorships (military, political, bureaucratic and economic elites) who yearn for return to power and the privileges they enjoyed? Netanyahu’s longing for a return to a president, who like GWB, recognises (as one senior IDF official said to me) that Israel and the US are “joined at the hip”?
Romney seemed to affirm that uncritical stance with his declaration that “the world must never see any daylight between our two nations”, and his promise of increased military assistance to Israel appeared in the same sentence as its threatened pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. No wonder his commitment or, as he put it, recommitment of “America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel” will ring hollow to Palestinians. Moreover, Romney’s return to American century smacks of the long-term unilateralism that even our EU and other global allies resented.
There are many things that have made America a great country, but to fall back on the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, its “proud history of strong, confident, principled global leaderships”, and that “so many people across the world still look to America as the best hope of humankind” is to be deaf to what major polls have reported: That while we are admired for many of our principles, values and accomplishments, many in the world, let alone the Middle East fault us because we do not walk the way we talk. This was true for attitudes towards GWB and, though Obama has articulated a different vision, also for the Obama administrations failure to live up to that vision. This is what fuels anti-Americanism among majorities in many countries who have lived under the dictatorships that the US supported and propped up with their lack of democracy and violations of human rights.
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Mitt Romney is correct in stating that there is a “struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East – a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century”. But to conclude that, “the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself” is to see diverse populations and progress in nation building in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere through a single lens. He is correct in his analysis regarding US policy in Syria that appears to be in gridlock, supporting the Syrian opposition with words but not weapons, a criticism levelled by many Republican leaders and an increasing number of Democrats. But his promise to include preconditions (he speaks of “clear conditions”) “to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel” espouses a policy of dictating rather than discussing and negotiating (which he seems ready to do with “our [unelected] partners in the Gulf) with a democratically Egyptian leadership of a sovereign government.
Romney doesn’t get it
Yes, American leadership has been important and remains important in the coming decades and in the midst of post-revolutionary emerging democracies in the Arab world. But that will not happen if the US retreats to the failed policies of the recent based on a conventional wisdom that:
- Failed to live up to US principles and values regarding the right to self-determination, freedoms, and the rule of law.
- Supported and continues to support friends and allies who are autocrats, self-styled Democrats, too many of whom are illiberal secularists.
- Failed to distinguish between terrorists and mainstream Islamists in the past, and now to deal with those who are legitimately democratically elected as partners not clients.
John L Esposito is University Professor and Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University. His recent books are The Future of Islam (with I Kalin) and Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century.