May 24, 2013
Mitt Romney’s Big Bad Ideas for the Middle East
Posted on Oct 31, 2011
By Juan Cole
Mitt Romney, stuck in the 20s in Republican opinion polls, has begun flailing around trying to make a splash on foreign policy. He has charged that President Barack Obama’s coddling of dictators provoked the masses of the Middle East to the Arab Spring and sent it “out of control.” Romney needs an issue. Evangelicals are skittish about his Mormon faith. He is not the favorite of the populist and somewhat isolationist tea party activists. As a quarter-billionaire former head of a private equity investment firm that specialized in outsourcing American jobs, he faces uncomfortable questions from unemployed and underpaid Americans. Desperate, Romney has decided to try to depict Obama as clueless and weak on Middle East issues.
It is a doomed gambit. Obama has had a string of foreign policy successes this year, especially in the Middle East. His special forces took out Osama bin Laden and he authorized a drone strike that eliminated al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki. He deftly handled the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, so far retaining the friendship of those countries as they move from pro-American dictatorships to parliamentary regimes. His Libya gamble paid off with a transitional government in Tripoli that may be the first in the Arab world whose members and supporters have waved American flags. On Oct. 21, he announced the end of another long national nightmare in Iraq, with the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country by the end of this year. Left-of-center Democrats, including this writer, have questioned Obama’s methods, but the achievements are undeniably popular in Peoria.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 have already removed three dictators and forced governments across the region to abolish draconian states of emergency. Tunisia has had free and fair parliamentary elections, and Egypt’s are scheduled to begin in late November. What is Romney’s response to these epochal events? “We’re facing an Arab Spring which is out of control in some respects because the president was not as strong as he needed to be in encouraging our friends to move toward representative forms of government,” he says.
Romney has conveniently forgotten that as late as Feb. 1 of this year, he was on CNN saying, “I probably would avoid the term ‘dictator’ in referring to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.” He was more generous to his predecessors then, not seeking to blame Mubarak’s non-dictatorship (1981-2011) on Obama. Instead, he said, “Over many administrations in this country, we’ve encouraged President Mubarak to move in the direction of providing … freedoms.” But pre-candidate Romney had some reservations about muscular Wilsonianism. He cautioned, “If a nation is … headed by [a] leader whose form of government we don’t particularly appreciate or approve of, we don’t come in and say, we won’t work with you. … This, after all, was an administration which has been friendly with us, has had agreements with us to protect the stability of Israel, our ally. So we can’t just say we’re going to rip everything apart and fashion your nation the way we would like to be.” Such strength. It is surprising that Mubarak didn’t just resign on the spot after hearing Romney’s thunderous condemnation.
Like his rival Michele Bachmann, Romney has pledged that he would let the Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu make U.S. policy toward Israel. It is not clear how this pusillanimity toward the Israel lobbies is consistent with his demand that the president show “strength.” Romney instead urges that the U.S. not take an active leadership role in trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At a time when the Arab masses are highly politicized, Romney has promised to unilaterally foreclose the issue of the final status of Jerusalem by moving the U.S. Embassy there, a gesture that would surely spark a massive backlash in the region.
Romney’s sour reaction to the good news that the illegal Iraq War was finally at an end is full of posturing and innuendo. The Status of Forces Agreement passed by the Iraqi parliament in 2008 and signed by Republican President George W. Bush specified the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for U.S. forces to depart that country. In April 2007, Romney had expressed support for “timetables and milestones” worked out between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of which the Status of Forces Agreement would appear to be an example. Maliki all along maintained that the agreement was not susceptible to revision and that any new agreement would have to be passed by the nation’s legislature. Adm. Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 until Oct. 1 of this year, concurred with Maliki (worth mentioning since Romney is so eager that we hear the Pentagon on all this).
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