American foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia is bad enough on its own credentials. But when it is subjected to the pulls and pushes of a presidential campaign, the spectacle shifts from being merely incompetent and destructive to being vastly more dangerous to all in the region and the world. This reality has become more evident after a series of recent declarations by Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He has set a new standard of ignorance, arrogance and pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian partiality that one would have thought would be hard to achieve, even in the intellectual wilds of Washington, D.C. But this is an election year in the United States, and strange things happen at such a moment.
Barack Obama has a track record of policy-making in the Middle East, and it is mostly unimpressive, but at least we know what to expect from him if he wins a second term. He acted forcefully in Libya, kept his promise to stop American active warfare in Iraq, but otherwise his first term leaves a legacy of unfulfilled rhetoric and minor achievements. He is unlikely to launch any new initiative on the Palestine issue and Arab-Israeli peace-making, or to show any more resolve on supporting Arab democratic uprisings, even as he continues to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, if possible by never mentioning those two countries by name.
He seems to have learned something about the limits of American power and influence in the Middle East and South Asia, which is a good thing. He does not seem to have grasped the opportunity for the United States to adopt more lawful and respectful policies that would align it with the vast majority of men and women in the region, who are risking, and often meeting, death to overthrow their dictators and build more humane and effective governance systems.
The tepid and still inconsistent American response to the Arab uprisings is the strongest sign yet that Washington’s rhetoric about supporting freedom, democracy and the rule of law remains deeply constrained by much stronger commitments to its two long-held priorities in the region: the extreme policies and fears of the state of Israel, and the imperative to maintain existing rulers and systems in the Arab oil-producing countries (though other oil-producers like Iran or Venezuela can suffer sanctions, chaos and collapse, because that serves American-Israeli ideological interests).
The prospect of a Mitt Romney presidency is altogether different, for two main reasons. The first is that the tone of his rhetoric on how he would handle Middle East foreign policy issues is stridently militant, with frequent talk about using American power and influence to reorder the region and re-establish respect for the U.S.
The second, more striking, aspect of his Mid-east rhetoric is that it is all rhetoric, with no clear prescriptions or specific policy proposals. When he does talk with more specificity, as he did privately to a donors gathering a few weeks ago, he often talks nonsense and lies.
A good example is his statements: that the Palestinians want to destroy Israel and have no interest in negotiating peace, or that Israelis are better off than Palestinians because of the superior culture of the Israelis.
His habit of seeing the Middle East almost exclusively through the lens of right-wing Israeli sentiment is bad enough; it is exacerbated by his reliance on neoconservative foreign policy advisers who have been resurrected from the George W. Bush era, just in time to scare us all during the upcoming Halloween season.
But this is an election year, and candidates necessarily speak in extremes or in empty slogans. So it is pretty safe basically to ignore everything that Romney says, partly because of his ignorance and pro-Israeli extremism, and partly because he is running for president, rather than exercising any rational thought or policy mechanisms.
It also should be sobering for the Romney neocons and fellow muscle flexers – including Obama officials who have not ruled out military force to prevent Iran from achieving its alleged desire to develop a nuclear bomb – to ponder the fascinating story on Afghanistan in Tuesday’s New York Times. It quoted American officials in Kabul as basically saying they had all but abandoned their expectation that the recently ended troop surge would force the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war. Now American officials have adopted the much more modest goal of hoping that once all foreign troops leave the country, the Taliban and the Afghan government might negotiate an end to the war.
This remarkable milestone suggests that the entire American-led war effort essentially has been a wasteful and destructive failure, as had been the Russian occupation of Afghanistan a generation ago. Foreign leaders who boast about using their military on the other side of the world should grow up and take some humility pills this week.
The writer is a columnist at the Lebanon-based Daily Star, where this article was published on Oct. 3, 2012