Is Romney better on the Middle East?

Does Romney trump Obama on Middle East policy?

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Romney visited Israel earlier this year
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 11 October 2012 09:32

I was one of those foolish optimists who back in 2010 celebrated the election of Barack Obama, thinking he could bring a degree of nuance to US foreign policy and improve America's image abroad which, rightly or wrongly, was battered during the Bush years.

After all, his background and seeming cosmopolitan sophistication led many to believe that he was capable of forging new and better relations with other societies, especially those in the Middle-East.

I have been eating humble pie ever since.

Following on from a rather lame and sometimes farcical address in Cairo in front of a pre-vetted audience that seemed to cheer at almost everything he said, Obama's presence in the Middle-East has been conspicuous by its absence. The official line is that he is playing a 'leading from behind' role, which is another way of saying – we don't want to be seen to be doing much.

What he is actually doing is playing the 'look I'm not Bush' card, the only card he seems to have up his sleeve.

Whatever the wisdom behind his strategy, the net effect, it seems, is that Obama looks weak and indecisive on the international stage. The problem is when you are the world's sole superpower you are expected to make bold moves, even if they don't lead to popularity, and if you merely seek popularity you will inevitably do the wrong things.

The Arab Spring, which clearly took the Obama administration by complete surprise, was an opportunity for Obama to show leadership and take the side of those who were making sacrifices for not just a chance to vote but for democratic culture.

Again, he fluffed it, sent out mixed messages, and made himself look irrelevant. You could almost hear young revolutionaries calling for Bush to come back.

This lack of clarity and courage on Obama's part has not gone unnoticed by Romney. Following on from his first debate with Obama, which focused on economics, Romney has now turned his focus to the Middle East.

In a speech at a military academy a couple of days ago, Romney focused in particular on the lack of leadership shown by the Obama administration and the manner in which it has resulted in a decline in US influence, and the need for pursuing certain foreign policy objectives in a more aggressive way.

He was keen to stress (a) the need to arm Syrian rebels who share our values, (b) the need to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, (c) unconditional support for Israel and the need for a two state solution, (d) an increase in military spending, and (e) support for civil society groups around the world, especially in the Middle-East, who are struggling for democratic culture and free societies that respect basic rights.

The final point is of great significance since the Obama administration has been accused of getting too close to Islamist forces in the region without any tangible benefit, whilst leaving genuine pro-democracy forces feeling exasperated.

This may have much to do with the fact that a number of individuals with dubious backgrounds have been appointed as his Middle-East advisers (it wouldn't be wise to list names). Hence, opportunistic moral relativism and faux liberal elitism have induced a sense of reluctance when it comes to promoting liberal democracy

On Iran, despite the rhetoric, I don't think Romney is that far away from Obama since he also believes that tough sanctions are the way forward, at least for now, and that approach does seem to be bearing some fruit.

On Israel/Palestine I don't think it’s very difficult to trump Obama since he appears to know very little about the conflict and seems to care even less. Romney, however, is more hard line than his public rhetoric would suggest since he has spoken previously at a private dinner about the possibility that an independent state for the Palestinian people may be unattainable due to their intransigent nature.

On Syria Romney seems to be of the view that an escalation of the conflict will lead to a positive outcome. He also recognises the need to be selective about who is armed, which is a good sign and suggests his advisers have learnt lessons from Libya and Afghanistan.

However, with both sides committing gross human rights violations and Syria already being awash with weapons from the Gulf, an escalation may not be the best thing. This conflict has already spread into neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey whilst attracting Jihadists from all over the world.

It would be easy to caricature Romney as pro-intervention on Syria, indeed many commentators already have, but foreign intervention has already started – just not from the West. Iran has already pumped 10 billion into Syria with the aim of propping up the Assad regime and Russia continues to provide military hardware.

The downfall of the Assad regime is a matter of time. Iran can't afford to continue providing support at the level it has done and is already withdrawing forces. The economic crisis in Iran, which has triggered mass protests, will severely limit its reach abroad as it attempts to shore up domestic support, and so allies such as Assad and Hezbollah will suffer.

The Obama team may just have got Syria right.

Overall, I think Romney and his team get the Middle-East better than Obama does. Importantly, they think US supremacy and power is a good thing whilst Obama seems almost embarrassed by it.

The point Obama misses is that many people out there actually need their regular dose of anti-Americanism, it is what helps them to avoid introspection and responsibility so they are not going to allow him to rehabilitate America's image that easily.

Ultimately showing too much leadership can sometimes be as bad as showing no leadership. Doing the right thing and winning plaudits rarely go together in geo-politics. Thus Romney and his advisers will continue to grapple with the dilemmas that come with being the world's sole super-power.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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