Obama versus Romney on the Middle East

There is a troubling opacity about Romney’s Middle East positions with overtones of interventionism, writes scholars.

Outwardly, the Republicans have "little to offer" on the international front; neither Mitt Romney nor his running mate Paul Ryan has "any discernible foreign policy experience" [EPA]

If you have been following the presidential campaigns lately, you would be excused for missing the candidates’ ideas about foreign policy. America is still conducting the longest war in its history, is witnessing a shift in global power eastwards, is apparently impotent in the face of an imminent collapse of the Eurozone, is paying historically high commodity prices, and is standing by as the Middle East transforms. But in both the Republican and Democratic Party conventions, all that and more seemed to matter little in the face of one thing: the Economy. But foreign policy also matters, especially in a global environment that is challenging American hegemony; and Middle East policy matters a lot – a region important not just for its oil but because it is undergoing seismic social and political transformations. 

Does it make any difference, as far as the Middle East is concerned, which party wins? Democrats and Republicans compete vigorously to be the most pro-Israel. Both parties are strong on combating Islamist terrorism and issue the same tough line on Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Both “support our troops” in Afghanistan – though Mitt Romney somehow neglected to mention this during their convention. As for the Arab uprisings, Republicans and Democrats alike produce soaring rhetoric in favour of freedom. 

Yet beneath the surface there are nuances to be observed.  

Obama: Leading from behind? 

Newly elected President Obama started off hot on the greater Middle East but he quickly cooled, and as his strategic focus “pivots” toward Asia and the containment of China, one might expect that were he to be re-elected he would like to put this region on the back burner, maybe even forget about it altogether. Bruised on Palestine, flummoxed on Iran, frustrated on Afghanistan/Pakistan and perplexed on the Arab spring, who could blame him? 

To be sure, Democrats were on the offence about their proactive record at their convention, touting three achievements: the hunting down and killing of Osama bin Laden, the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and their impending withdrawal from Afghanistan. Vice-President Joe Biden rocked the house with his catchy slogan: “Bin Laden is Dead and GM is Alive.”  


 Romney breaks out political judo on Obama’s
foreign policy 

Otherwise, however, the Middle East cupboard was pretty bare. Obama had taken office determined to cut the Gordian knot of the Palestine-Israel conflict and to restore America’s battered image in the Muslim world. But his effort to inject some balance into the former issue by calling on Israel to cease settlement-building was embarrassingly torpedoed by Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who – thanks to the all-powerful Israel lobby – mobilised practically the entire US congress in opposition.

A recent example of that power was the awkward re-insertion of “Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” into the Democratic platform – by order of Obama himself – despite a long record of Democratic and Republican administrations’ recognition of this as a final-status issue to be negotiated between the parties. 

As for his attempted opening to the Muslim world, unveiled in a powerful speech at Cairo University in June 2009, that also unravelled as Muslim public opinion registered disgust at his retreat on Palestine and anger at the “collateral damage” inflicted by unmanned aerial drone aircraft on innocent civilians. In his first three years, Obama authorised at least 239 covert drone strikes compared to the 44 approved during George W Bush’s two terms. The damage extends to diplomatic relations with Pakistan and the wounds are ever deepening. But the withdrawal of troops and even diplomatic endeavours from the region, coupled with the increased use of such precision military strikes against al-Qaeda, demonstrate a tactical and perhaps strategic shift away from the region generally. 

On Iran, Obama initially offered a conciliatory stance toward President Ahmedinejad and when it wasn’t reciprocated, he turned hawkish, partly to insulate himself from Republican attacks on his “softness”. Now, as the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear and military facilities increases – in the weeks before the US election – he risks being propelled by domestic pressures into being drawn in to what could become a region-wide war.  

Finally, there is the tricky question of the Arab uprisings. How to position the US on “the right side of history” by supporting popular uprisings against unpopular dictators when some of those dictators help promote American interests? Here the President has tried to mix pragmatism and idealism, belatedly supporting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, hovering over a confusing situation in Yemen, deflecting criticism of the Bahrain monarchy’s suppression of popular dissent (in deference to Saudi Arabia), and holding his breath as Syria dissolves into civil war -offering only limited support to a fragmented opposition in which Islamist extremists have a certain presence. But perhaps it was his dealing with Libya that exemplifies best his approach to the Middle East: military and strategic objectives were met by playing a critical role in the NATO-led campaign against Muammar Gaddafi. But this was achieved “from behind” and with precision, not with the massive force and rhetoric his predecessor used to affect regime change elsewhere in the Arab world. 

So what might we look forward to in a second Obama administration? Grand initiatives seem out of the question. Regional conflict management would take precedence over settling deep problems. To be sure, barred from a third term, Obama could risk political heat by rebalancing on Israel-Palestine, but he more likely would recoil from being burned yet again. With the retirement of key adviser Dennis Ross and the planned retirement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a fresher and more pragmatic foreign policy team might come forward, possibly led by Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State. Given the higher priority of domestic economic issues, the “pivot” toward Asia, and the need to reduce unnecessary military and security expenditures, we would expect Obama to favour incremental and multilateral approaches.  

The same, however, cannot be said about a Romney administration. 

Romney: Return of the neo-cons? 

Outwardly, the Republicans have little to offer on the international front. Neither Mitt Romney nor his running mate Paul Ryan has any discernible foreign policy experience. (The consequences of Romney’s international immaturity were on display during his trip overseas in July, treated at length elsewhere.) This deficiency was clear at the Republican National Convention, where even former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at greater length about the domestic “crisis in K-12 education” than she did any one foreign policy issue. For his part, John McCain made a great deal of our “drift away from global leadership”, allowing dictators to oppress their people, making hard demands of Israel and withdrawing from Afghanistan. But McCain did not counter any one policy with a differing proposal. This ambiguity is, in fact, symptomatic of the Romney campaign’s stances on foreign policies. 


 Obama kicks off bid for second term

While broadly condemning Obama’s apparent failures in the Middle East, Romney’s policy statements reveal no substantive differences from those of the sitting President. In all of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, and Syria, Romney suggests the need for more robust military behaviour without ever explicitly calling for it. 

Specifically, on Iraq and Afghanistan Romney has questioned the wisdom of withdrawing our troops, but he has not stated that he is in favour of their continued deployment either. On Iran, he supports sanctions, the availability of a military option and the completion of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, all just the same as Obama.


He supported the military intervention in Libya but suggested that Obama, making “timid and nuanced” foreign policy decisions, should not have been co-operating with the Arab League or the United Nations. Listening to Romney or McCain on Syria, one might think that here the hawks are out of their cages. But no, Mitt has not called for military intervention. He has, however, alluded to working with the opposition “when the time comes for them to forge a post-Asad government”. That’s hardly a departure. 

As he does on the above issues and many more, Romney does employ rugged rhetoric, with a language and tone manifestly tougher than Obama’s. This is clearly true on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Here, Romney stands unabashedly on one side of the conflict and accuses Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus” for seeking Israeli concessions during negotiations. Romney has given no indication that he would himself pursue a peace process between the two parties. With the exception of a $2 trillion increase in defence spending, it appears that the Romney campaign has limited itself to offering up a lot of hard-hitting words without indicating any policies to match them.  

So perhaps a better way to anticipate the foreign policy of a Romney administration is in the advisers with which he surrounds himself. Of his 40 or so advisers, 70 per cent of them worked for George W Bush. Twenty per cent have signed letters drafted by the Project for a New American Century, the neo-conservative think-tank that brought you the brains behind the war on Iraq. Fitting into both these categories is John Bolton, George W Bush’s hawkish ambassador to the United Nations. Other neo-conservative leftovers include: Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency who created warrantless wiretapping programmes under Bush; Robert Joseph, credited with making Bush’s false claim about Iraq’s efforts to obtain enriched uranium from Niger; Cofer Black, former vice-president of Blackwater USA; and Michael Chertoff, Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security. 

But the neo-conservative delegation to Romney is not the full story. His team also includes Henry Kissinger, James Baker and George Shultz, all respected secretaries of states in past Republican administrations. Furthermore, it is impossible to know (given the policy ambiguities discussed above), who influences Romney the most. 

So let’s zoom in for a moment on our region of choice. The campaign’s Middle East and North Africa Working Group consists of Mary Beth Long, Meghan O’Sullivan and Walid Phares. Long, with a lengthy career in the CIA, was Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs from 2007 to 2009; O’Sullivan was Senior Director for Iraq in Bush’s National Security Council and his Deputy National Security Adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. Both choices fit squarely into the Bush administration’s Iraq pursuits, the neo-conservative project par excellence. 

“While broadly condemning Obama’s apparent failures, Romney’s policy statements reveal no substantive differences from those of the sitting President.”

But it is Walid Phares that gives the group an interesting twist. Formerly with the Task Force for Future Terrorism in Homeland Security from 2006-2007, Phares’ prior job qualifications include his work training Lebanese Christian militants and advising warlord Samir Geagea during that country’s long civil war.

The Lebanese Forces remain a political power today and have always been squarely opposed to the Asad regime in Syria. With his colleagues’ expertise in regime change and his own political history, could Phares take the lead on Romney’s Syria policy? 

Better off four years from now? 

The hyperbolic rhetoric of an intense political campaign is not necessarily a good indicator of a candidate’s behaviour once in office, nor is it notable for precision and clarity – especially in this contest. Nevertheless, it would seem that the parties’ differences on Middle East issues are more a matter of degree than of kind – on paper.

In our reading, Obama will be inclined to soft-pedal core Middle East issues like Palestine-Israel and the Arab uprisings – don’t expect any more bold initiatives – in favour of a narrower, surgical approach to eliminating “terrorists” while he deploys American power toward Asia. But there is a troubling opacity about Romney’s Middle East positions combined with overtones of interventionism.

Would an ideologically energised but inexperienced Romney team, unable to comprehend let alone advance “soft power”, be able to handle a region so volatile without weakening its position  and embroiling the US in new and costly interventions?

Michael C Hudson is the Seif Ghobash Professor of Government and International Relations at Georgetown University. He is currently serving as the Director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. He has written, edited and contributed to numerous books, including Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration (Columbia University Press), Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (Yale University Press) and The Precarious Republic: Political Modernization in Lebanon (Random House).

Rana B Khoury is a writer and researcher whose interests and education span the Middle East and the Midwest. She has spent one-year stints living and working in Syria and Singapore. She is currently focusing on the impact of the economic downturn on Ohioans. 

Follow her on Twitter: @rbkhoury