The problem with Mitt Romney’s Middle East platform isn’t the strategy, but what the strategy would miss.
The title of Mitt Romney’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Monday suggested the substance of the editorial would provide a Republican foreign policy for U.S. engagement with the Middle East. What substance was to be found echoed current policies — the United States should support Israel, prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, and represent and encourage our values of freedom and democracy abroad. These are interests — good ones, at that — but they are not a strategy. The closest thing Romney provides to a means to these ends is the suggestion that the United States must “restore the three sinews of our influence: our economic strength, our military strength and the strength of our values,” and use “the full spectrum of our soft power.”
Contrary to Romney’s op-ed, these do not represent a different approach than current policy. The U.S. economy has faltered, but it still competes well abroad. The United States retains a military presence in the region and has recently bolstered its fleet in the Persian Gulf. On the subject of American values, President Barack Obama just last week delivered an articulate defense of free speech at the United Nations while many of his Arab counterparts used their time at the podium to propose universal anti-blasphemy laws that would circumscribe that freedom. And yet, the problems Romney cited — violence in Syria, political instability that threatens the relations of countries and the security of U.S. embassies, Iran’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons — persist.
The fact that the strategy Romney proposes does not fully address these issues is less the fault of the strategy, and more that the problems cited defy strategy. Even the thorough U.S. strategy for the region in place through 2010 — much more nuanced than the 1,000 words that fit on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page — could not cope with the surprises and spoilers of the past two years, whether it was a poorly produced Islamophobic film going viral and being used to stoke riots at U.S. embassies, or a fruit vendor lighting himself on fire in desperation and inspiring mass movements against the ancien regime. When Romney points to the Syrian civil war, the embassy protests, the politics of Egypt and their potential implications for the peace treaty with Israel, these are issues for which, because the United States did not prepare for these events, policymakers are still reacting.
The United States is revising its strategies, but no shift in policy or rhetoric will change Arab perspectives as quickly as some of these countries have changed governments. Only time will be able to do that. In the long term, Romney is right that soft power with an emphasis on economic and security cooperation will be central to achieving U.S. interests in the long-term — though the candidates probably wouldn’t admit to it, they agree on this in principle, if not in semantics. But this is not a panacea. As important as good strategy is a measured response to international crises, the ones which no one saw coming, the so-called “black swans.”
In an editorial noteworthy for what it omits more than what it includes, this is the most glaring oversight.
J. Dana Stuster is a Senior Editor for The Jerusalem Review.
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