Terms of Engagement

With Us or (Mostly) Against Us

The Republican presidential hopefuls have a pretty clear idea of who they think America's enemies are. But what about its friends?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

I’ve been combing through the GOP debates and candidate speeches looking for the word "ally." There’s a lot about adversaries — Iranians, Chinese, Russians, Islamists, jihadists, even Venezuelans — but not a lot on the other side of the ledger. Much of it takes the following form: "Israel is our greatest ally" — Michele Bachmann. Or: "You don’t allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies." This from Mitt Romney, who went on to accuse President Barack Obama of — surprise! — throwing Israel "under the bus" by publicly criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney also accuses Obama of betraying U.S. allies Poland and Colombia.

Is it a coincidence that the Republican candidates identify as allies the very few countries whose citizens just might vote for one of them if given the chance? Did I mention that Rick Perry has accused the Obama administration of selling Taiwan down the river? If only Newt Gingrich could come to the defense of plucky, supercapitalist Georgia, the candidates could assemble a complete list of right-leaning nations. It’s as if they map America’s own ideological divisions onto the world, dividing the globe into red and blue countries — six or seven on the good side and the other 185 or so on the bad.

Perhaps this also explains Romney’s strange allergy to Western Europe. You would think that the two and a half years Romney spent in France working as a Mormon missionary — enough to fake his way through the language — would predispose him on the continent’s behalf. Of course, given the religious obligation to abstain from pretty much every fun thing Europe had to offer, he may have had a lousy time; maybe he even blamed it on the Europeans. He certainly has nothing good to say about the place.

"Europe," for Romney, does not conjure up the United States’ steadfast allies in World War II and the Cold War, or even the cultural category known as "the West," but rather a failed economic model that deluded liberals continue to pursue. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he asserted that Obama "seems to take his inspiration not from the small towns and villages of New Hampshire but from the capitals of Europe" — and we know what color that continent is.

Let us concede, for a moment, Romney’s bizarre premise that Western Europe doesn’t share America’s values, even if that’s where those values came from in the first place. An ally is not a country that shares your values, but a country that shares your interests. The two categories overlap plenty, of course, because values play a powerful role in shaping a country’s interests abroad. NATO is an alliance of democratic nations born in the great moral, political, and military struggle against Soviet communism. But when President Harry Truman famously declared that the United States would "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" — the Truman Doctrine — he was talking about Greece and Turkey, countries that were not then democratic but were prepared to resist Soviet expansion.

Yesterday the United States made common cause with right-wing dictators; today it stands shoulder to shoulder with social democrats. Perhaps Romney would be able to live more comfortably with this ideological tension if he inaugurated a policy of "free market promotion" in Europe, as George W. Bush sought to promote democracy among autocratic allies in the Middle East.

We are familiar enough with the situation in which the United States makes common cause with countries that do not share its values (see: Arabia, Saudi). What about the more unusual case where a nation that shares American values does not share its interests? An obvious example would be Turkey, a NATO ally and a democracy whose aspiration to lead the Middle East has produced a series of clashes with the United States and Europe. And what about Israel? America’s "greatest ally" pursues policies that do real harm to U.S. interests.

Gen. David Petraeus finally let the cat out of the bag when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples" in the region. But Karen Hughes, Bush’s great friend and his former head of public diplomacy, told me that she said the same thing to Bush after touring the region in 2006. The Republican candidates profess to be baffled, and outraged, that Obama would criticize so dear an ally; but if Canada — much less Turkey — pursued policies as harmful to U.S. national security as Israel does and proved as intransigent in the face of American concerns as Israel has, an American president would criticize it much more harshly (given the absence of a domestic Canadian or Turkish lobby).

The United States is Israel’s ally much more than the other way around. And that’s not the worst of it: Have Bachmann, Perry, and the other declared enemies of the welfare state noticed that Israel practices socialized medicine and confiscatory taxation? What kind of model is that? The Israelis might vote for Romney to be president of the United States, but they would surely prefer Obama, or Howard Dean, to be prime minister of Israel. It’s a blue country with a red-country foreign policy.

If you push hard enough, you could find a few other countries the Republicans like. Perry has criticized the Obama administration for refusing to sell India upgraded F-16s, though in fact this never happened and he was almost certainly thinking of Taiwan. Herman Cain has sided with the very beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, who has fought terrorists (as well as "terrorists") at home. Rick Santorum has assailed Obama’s failure to support President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, leading to "what now looks like a power vacuum being filled by the Muslim Brotherhood." Of course, if you think that the Muslim Brotherhood poses less of a threat to Egypt’s future than yet another decade of paralysis and frustration, then you might conclude that Obama was well advised to stop pumping air into Mubarak’s lifeless regime.

All of this is familiar enough. It was Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary, who first drew the line between "old" and "new" — blue and red — Europe. It was Bush who chose his allies à la carte, and Bush who gave Israel carte blanche during the wars in Lebanon and Gaza. But Bush also had some second thoughts. Bush came to recognize that he couldn’t live without Europe — all of it. He even patched things up with France. Bush turned to the G-20 to help deal with the global financial crisis of 2008. He saw that the institutions in which alliances are permanently embedded, like the United Nations, enjoy a form of legitimacy that no ad hoc coalition concocted in Washington ever could. If a Republican — i.e., Romney — is elected, he’s all too likely to make the same mistakes Bush did, and learn the same painful lessons.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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