Mitt Romney, stuck in the 20s in Republican opinion polls, has begun flailing around trying to make a splash on foreign policy. He has charged that President Barack Obama’s coddling of dictators provoked the masses of the Middle East to the Arab Spring and sent it “out of control.” Romney needs an issue. Evangelicals are skittish about his Mormon faith. He is not the favorite of the populist and somewhat isolationist tea party activists. As a quarter-billionaire former head of a private equity investment firm that specialized in outsourcing American jobs, he faces uncomfortable questions from unemployed and underpaid Americans. Desperate, Romney has decided to try to depict Obama as clueless and weak on Middle East issues.
It is a doomed gambit. Obama has had a string of foreign policy successes this year, especially in the Middle East. His special forces took out Osama bin Laden and he authorized a drone strike that eliminated al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki. He deftly handled the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, so far retaining the friendship of those countries as they move from pro-American dictatorships to parliamentary regimes. His Libya gamble paid off with a transitional government in Tripoli that may be the first in the Arab world whose members and supporters have waved American flags. On Oct. 21, he announced the end of another long national nightmare in Iraq, with the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country by the end of this year. Left-of-center Democrats, including this writer, have questioned Obama’s methods, but the achievements are undeniably popular in Peoria.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 have already removed three dictators and forced governments across the region to abolish draconian states of emergency. Tunisia has had free and fair parliamentary elections, and Egypt’s are scheduled to begin in late November. What is Romney’s response to these epochal events? “We’re facing an Arab Spring which is out of control in some respects because the president was not as strong as he needed to be in encouraging our friends to move toward representative forms of government,” he says.
Romney has conveniently forgotten that as late as Feb. 1 of this year, he was on CNN saying, “I probably would avoid the term ‘dictator’ in referring to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.” He was more generous to his predecessors then, not seeking to blame Mubarak’s non-dictatorship (1981-2011) on Obama. Instead, he said, “Over many administrations in this country, we’ve encouraged President Mubarak to move in the direction of providing … freedoms.” But pre-candidate Romney had some reservations about muscular Wilsonianism. He cautioned, “If a nation is … headed by [a] leader whose form of government we don’t particularly appreciate or approve of, we don’t come in and say, we won’t work with you. … This, after all, was an administration which has been friendly with us, has had agreements with us to protect the stability of Israel, our ally. So we can’t just say we’re going to rip everything apart and fashion your nation the way we would like to be.” Such strength. It is surprising that Mubarak didn’t just resign on the spot after hearing Romney’s thunderous condemnation.
Like his rival Michele Bachmann, Romney has pledged that he would let the Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu make U.S. policy toward Israel. It is not clear how this pusillanimity toward the Israel lobbies is consistent with his demand that the president show “strength.” Romney instead urges that the U.S. not take an active leadership role in trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At a time when the Arab masses are highly politicized, Romney has promised to unilaterally foreclose the issue of the final status of Jerusalem by moving the U.S. Embassy there, a gesture that would surely spark a massive backlash in the region.
The pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq is one of the few steps the U.S. could take to repair its tarnished image in the Middle East. But the move provoked a chorus of jeremiads from Republicans slamming President Obama. Romney suggested the decision either resulted from “naked political calculation” or “sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.” He characterized the troop withdrawal as a failure to “secure an orderly transition” in Iraq that endangered “the victories that were won” by U.S. military personnel. He implied that the administration had somehow kept the public from hearing the recommendations of U.S. military commanders. Recently he called the U.S. departure, after eight interminable years of fruitless bombings, civil war, ethnic cleansing and massive population displacement, “precipitous.”
Romney’s sour reaction to the good news that the illegal Iraq War was finally at an end is full of posturing and innuendo. The Status of Forces Agreement passed by the Iraqi parliament in 2008 and signed by Republican President George W. Bush specified the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for U.S. forces to depart that country. In April 2007, Romney had expressed support for “timetables and milestones” worked out between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of which the Status of Forces Agreement would appear to be an example. Maliki all along maintained that the agreement was not susceptible to revision and that any new agreement would have to be passed by the nation’s legislature. Adm. Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 until Oct. 1 of this year, concurred with Maliki (worth mentioning since Romney is so eager that we hear the Pentagon on all this).
There was never any realistic prospect that a majority of members of the Iraqi parliament would vote to bring the foreign troops back after they had left. WikiLeaks revealed that the government of Iraq was eager to “get rid of all the white faces carrying guns in their streets. … ” The “orderly transition” that Romney demands had already taken place, in accordance with the same Status of Forces Agreement, in June of 2009, when U.S. troops ceased actively patrolling Iraqi cities and turned that duty over to the new Iraqi army. Romney should explain to us what “victories” were won by the United States in Iraq, one of the great foreign policy catastrophes in our history. The only way that Romney could hope to position an American division in today’s Iraq would be to invade it all over again, and if that is his plan, he should let us know beforehand.
As someone who has been running for president for many years, Romney should by now know something about foreign policy and he should know where he stands. Instead, he appears to pirouette from one position to another. He declined to lambaste Mubarak as a dictator and underlined that the U.S. had to do business with friendly tyrants, but now blames the Arab youth revolt against decades of tyranny on two years of Obama policy. He slams Obama for not being “strong,” but meekly offers to be “guided” on Arab-Israeli issues by the Israeli prime minister. He was for an Iraq timetable before he was against it. He seems to want to campaign on prolonging the Iraq War, which you wouldn’t think would be popular even among the Republican base. The image all this frenetic position-shifting creates is of a man who wants to be president much more than he wants to be a man of principle.