A Romney Presidency and the Middle East

The presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has tightened up considerably in recent weeks. On the eve of the two main candidates’ debate on foreign policy, it might be worth considering what a Romney presidency might portend for the US and the emerging Middle East from Tunisia to Iran.

The Romney campaign has often charged that the Obama administration’s Syria policy has failed to sufficiently help the opposition drive Bashir al Assad from power in Syria. It’s an easy charge to make amid a bloody civil war, especially if one ignores the international setting in which the war is taking place, which of course candidates are free to do. The US cannot increase support to the opposition without considering the possibility of a Russian response, which could include interrupting US/ISAF supplies into Afghanistan. Rather than being our primary geopolitical rival, Russia is a critical ally to the US in Afghanistan as supply lines through Pakistan have become unreliable. Russia’s views on Syria, wrongheaded though they may be, must be respected.

Furthermore, the powers seeking Assad’s ouster have recently reduced arms shipments to the Syrian opposition for fear that too many groups would be well armed and of uncertain predispositions after Assad’s ouster. The powers are seeking a middle-level of pressure that pushes Assad out but prevents the country from falling into a chaos from numerous armed groups. Whatever the merits of this policy, a more aggressive US policy would not be welcome by Turkey, the EU, Israel, Saudi Arabia, other GCC states, and of course Russia. A Romney presidency could not deviate from the present policy without facing strong international opposition and possibly even problematic retaliation.

The Arab Spring
The Romney campaign, and the foreign policy voices aligned with it, call for greater American leadership in the unsettled region, especially in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Special concern is expressed about militant groups in Libya, Muslim Brotherhood networks, and the tribal groups in the Sinai desert. US leadership, however, could take forms deemed unwelcome in the region. Everyone wants greater stability in the region, but taking steps to thwart the Muslim Brotherhood and kindred groups, which presently enjoy considerable support, or backing the military as a stabilizing force, could obviously backfire quite badly and weaken US interests. There is little sign of strategic adroitness or regional sensitivity in the Romney foreign policy team to allay such concerns.

The call for greater US leadership resonates with Americans who have retained a sense of national identity based on their country’s guidance of the world through the Second World War, the Cold War, and the aftermath. There is little such resonance in the Middle East. The new countries of the region, having rid themselves of dictators, are determined to make their own futures. Many will welcome US help, to be sure, but nothing that can be called US leadership, especially as Governor Romney understands it. Foreign countries are not departments or subsidiaries who follow the orders of a CEO, regardless of incentives and investments.

Middle Eastern publics will see a Romney administration as a return of Neo-conservative foreign policy. Neo-cons are positioned on his foreign policy team; his speeches pronounce their principles of America’s virtue and mission in the world; and his faith attaches importance to Israel’s role in the unfolding of a divine plan. The merits of Neo-conservatism may be debatable in the US public, but Middle Easterners deem it the ideological foundation for the unwarranted invasion of Iraq and for related efforts to reshape the region into America’s image and to seize its resources.

A Romney administration would be tied to, if not aligned with, the Israeli Right. Benjamin Netanyahu, after all, has made political ad, aired in the US, which call for stronger action against Iran, which of course is a clear criticism of Obama and an oblique endorsement of Romney. More pressing to Middle Eastern publics is the Palestinian issue, which the Netanyahu government refuses to address, opting instead to expand settlements on the West Bank and achieving a geographic fait accompli a few steps short of annexation. A President Romney, they reason, will support Netanyahu polices on the Palestinians, without so much as the criticism his predecessor put forth early in his administration. This in time would almost certainly coalesce the new Middle East into a region even more hostile to the US than it needs to be.

Tensions between the US and Iran have eased in recent weeks, as have tensions between Israel and Iran. The war that seemed imminent a few months ago has been put on hold by the Obama administration’s opposition – a point firmly and repeatedly conveyed to Israel. (Hence Netanyahu’s foray into the US campaign.) A Romney administration would almost certainly be more amenable to dismissing or eliding Obama’s stated “red line” of evidence of an Iranian weapons program and supporting Netanyahu’s much lower “red line” of shifting uranium enrichment to hardened sites. In any event, evidence of an Iranian weapons program is of course subject to interpretation. A Romney administration will be more forgiving of evidence of a nuclear program which will almost certainly fall short of certainty, as was the previous administration regarding such evidence.

© 2012 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam.  He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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