It's official: The Republican nominee has no new ideas for the Middle East.
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
First, full disclosure. I’m not associated with either the Barack Obama or the Mitt Romney campaign in any way. Over the years, I’ve worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations and voted for candidates from both parties. On foreign and domestic policy, I’ve come to believe that the appropriate dividing line for Americans should not be between Democrat and Republican, left and right, liberal and conservative, but between dumb and smart. And we ought to be on the smart side.
That’s why I was stunned to read Mitt Romney’s op-ed in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, which ran under the headline, "A New Course for the Middle East." Even by the standards of political silly season and in the heat of battle weeks before an election — when exaggeration, obfuscation, and willful distortion become the orders of the day — this article sets a new bar for its vacuity, aimlessness and lack of coherence. There’s nothing "new" in it, and it provides no "course for the Middle East." If anything, it takes us back to the kind of muscular nonsense and sloganeering that has wreaked havoc on our credibility in recent years. Here’s why:
1. Obama’s Middle East mistakes
Obama’s record in this still angry, broken, and dysfunctional region is far from perfect. But the latest security failure in Libya reflects badly on a record that has been pretty competent on such matters. Convinced he could transform the Middle East partly with his own persona and partly with the goodwill engendered by the fact that he wasn’t George W. Bush, Obama raised expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on diplomacy and engagement with Iran, Syria that he could never deliver. This wasn’t about the lack of American leadership. None of these problems were amenable to rapid transformation from Day One. American power was limited by the inherently conflicting agendas of regional actors, whose interests were not our own, and whom we could not control or co-opt. In raising hopes, President Obama diminished U.S. credibility, but to criticize him for failing to stop Iran’s nuclear program or for not delivering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is ridiculous. Not even a negotiating team of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad could have done that.
2. Obama’s successes
Obama accomplished three critically important things in this region for which Romney will not (but should) give him credit. First, he became a more focused and more disciplined version of Bush 43 when it came to counterterrorism policy: He killed Osama bin Laden, pulverized al Qaeda, and has so far prevented another attack on the continental United States. Protecting the homeland is the organizing principle of a nation’s foreign policy. If you can’t do that, you really don’t need a foreign policy. Second, Obama committed himself to (and is succeeding in) extricating America from the two longest wars in our history — wars that were among our most pointless, given what we sacrificed and what we’ve gotten in return. Third, he kept us out of new ones. (See Syria, Iran.) It is important to think through what your objectives are before you act and, in particular, how the application of American military power, whether alone or with others, would achieve those goals or make them worse. So far, in Syria and Iran, Obama has made the right call by not pursuing military half measures that might not work, could make the situation worse or create a slippery slope to greater U.S. involvement.
Romney has part of this right. Obama wrestled with Benjamin Netanyahu on the wrong issue — settlements — with no strategy or sense for how to use this tactic to achieve the ultimate goal: an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And there’s no doubt that on an emotional level, even though Bibi is hardly an easy guy to get along with, Barack Obama isn’t Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to bonding with Israel. And frankly, this is a serious problem. But to imply that Obama is willfully dismissing or trivializing Israeli concerns on Iran, let alone throwing Israel under the bus, just doesn’t wash. With the exception of Britain, the United States probably has a closer relationship with Israel than any other nation. Even so, our interests — given that there are two of us — can’t always align perfectly. And we need to deal honestly with one another when they don’t. Should Romney become president, the personal relationship between Netanyahu and the president would improve. But who’s to say that Romney’s instincts to ignore the Palestinian issue or give Israel greater leeway on striking Iran’s nuclear sites are the best policies for Israel? Indeed, the governor is hardly Israel’s salvation. Dollars to donuts, I’d bet that within a reasonable period of time, Netanyahu would also find a way to annoy Romney and vice versa.
4. U.S. leadership
I hope Romney doesn’t believe his own rhetoric and that his op-ed is only campaign bluster. Because if it’s real, we should be worried. I didn’t much care for Obama’s high-minded, idealized speeches early on about transforming the Middle East — and I don’t care much for Romney’s fancy words either. We’re stuck in a Middle East we can’t fix or leave. And that requires a pretty cruel and unforgiving look at reality, not a bunch of slogans that imply we can do what we want or get others there to do it for us. The past twenty years of failed American policy on peacemaking and war making in this region — under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama– reveal the costs of failure and what it’s done for our image abroad.
This has nothing to do with being a "declinist" or not believing in American "exceptionalism." We are exceptional, but part of that uniqueness lies in understanding that the wisest policies are those that find the balance between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Great powers get themselves into heaps of trouble when they commit transgressions of omniscience and omnipotence by thinking they know everything and can do everything, too. Romney’s op-ed is chock-full of both — and that’s not being on the smart side.