In the days following President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in September 2012, administration officials and U.S. media seesawed over a post-convention “bump” that elevated his standing above Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Numerous polls, including a recent Fox News survey, marked a widening gap between the candidates on a variety of issues, with Obama largely taking the lead: education (+14), Medicare (+11), terrorism (+8 points) and foreign policy, where Obama rated 15 points higher than Romney.
However, no matter who wins this November, people in the United States and Middle East will likely be stuck with largely the same U.S. policies toward the Middle East and North Africa that have held sway for decades.
Romney Runs on Traditional GOP Diesel
Although Romney’s policies in the Arab world are masked by ambiguity, scarecrows and red herrings designed to project a friendly aura toward the region, his administration runs on traditional GOP (Grand Old Party) diesel and exploits a widespread anti-Muslim trend in the mainstream Republican party.
While blaming Obama for “diminishing American leadership” is standard fare, and a valid point when it comes to the Middle East, Romney’s hawkish and insensitive tendencies toward local populations and fledgling pro-democracy movements in the region are undeniable. In his own words, Romney’s circle is staffed by pollsters who apparently are not “going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
More importantly, however, in many areas outside Iran and Israel’s airspace, Romney’s proposals mirror Obama’s. In his October 2011 white paper, titled “American Century Strategy: secure America’s enduring interests and values,” Romney demonstrates the numerous points of mutual agreement between himself and Obama while exposing the toxicity beneath his sweet rhetoric.
According to this document, the “unfinished” project for an “American Century” is something his administration would complete, and the Arab revolutions something to be manipulated under the banner of democracy:
“To protect our enduring national interests and to promote our ideals, a Romney administration will pursue a strategy of supporting groups and governments across the Middle East to advance the values of representative government, economic opportunity, and human rights, and opposing any extension of Iranian or jihadist influence. The Romney administration will strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab winter.
In a “dangerous, destructive, chaotic” world, Romney plans to “lead the free world” as the “free world leads the entire world.” This policy includes joining Israel’s crusade against Iran’s nuclear sites, a potential war that an estimated 60-70% of Americans disapprove of, as a means of projecting America’s strength.
Two Sides of the Same Imperialist Coin
Obama, on the other hand, has fashioned himself into an arbitrator of war and peace, wielding a Nobel Peace Prize in one fist and Osama bin Laden’s head in the other.
Four years removed from his promise of a new era of engagement between the U.S. government and Muslim world, negative perceptions that have accumulated between both sides as a result of decades of war, intervention, exploitation and continual strife continue to hold sway.
Obama is not personally responsible for this entrenched status quo, but he is to blame for overselling and under-delivering on his promise to repair relations with the ambiguously-defined Muslim world. Under Obama’s watch, U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf’s sphere of influence has continued to lack “American leadership.”
The race for bin Laden represented a triumph for whoever reached him first and Obama will likely reap the personal benefits of this success for the rest of his life. The glorified kill, along with an increase in drone warfare across the region and the strategic rise of U.S. Special Forces missions, has allowed Obama to continue his foreign policy of “less force” with minimal domestic resistance.
Obama’s case for non-military action against Iran, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and promise to “disrupt terror plots wherever they form” became more convincing after bin Laden’s death on May 2nd, 2011. Well-meaning critics of America’s new military strategy find it difficult to attack a policy that costs less American lives and taxpayer dollars.
Iraq & Afghanistan
Obama and Romney have wrangled over their respective policy positions on Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, they share more common ground than differences and have both failed to present a realistic approach to U.S. engagement with these countries.
The President has grown fond of bragging that he “ended the war in Iraq,” and has refused to unspin Romney’s own policy, as ongoing Iraqi casualties make for dangerous political ground.
With regard to Iraq, Romney claims that “a democratic Iraq allied to the United States is within our reach,” but that Obama has “threaten[ed] to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Promising to use a “broad array of foreign policy tools – diplomatic, economic, military” to bring Iraq within the U.S. sphere of influence, Romney focuses on Obama’s “failure” to install a residual military force. He ignores the political void that the administration has encouraged by supporting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. To the extent that the Obama administration has responded to Romney’s attacks, it has described his approach to Iraq as “tragic.”
In reality, Obama and Romney have ended up in al-Maliki’s leaky boat, a circumstance that neither candidate likes to discuss. Both fail to acknowledge (at least publicly) that Washington’s deficiencies in Iraq stem from political inequalities, not military shortages. Prolonging the deployment of U.S. troops under the authority of the divisive al-Maliki would have added to the Iraqi prime minister’s leverage over Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish political opponents; an extension of American involvement would have generated as many security problems as it would have solved.
The incumbent and challenger find similar common ground in Afghanistan, where Romney agrees with the bulk of Obama’s strategy despite public feuding. In line with Obama administration policy, Romney’s white paper approves of the 2014 transition to Afghan security forces and demands greater accountability from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s governments. Contrary to Obama’s DNC announcement that “in 2014, our longest war [Afghanistan] will be over,” his administration – like Romney’s – hopes to maintain a long-term security presence in the country after 2014.
Romney opposes negotiating with the Taliban and still intends to eliminate the group from Afghanistan, an unrealistic move that would ultimately extend the war. Much like Obama, Romney is liable to send air or ground troops across Pakistan’s border in search of the elusive Haqqani network, one of the Afghan Taliban’s most organized arms and a major thorn in U.S. strategy. Such a move would likely perpetuate Afghanistan’s war by causing new friction between Washington and Islamabad.
The Illusion of Choice
The greatest regional divergence between the candidates centers around U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran. On this front, Romney believes he can score fast points by portraying himself as the anti-Obama. For his part, Obama has remained focused on isolating Iran globally and has tread cautiously around talk of war, in response both to advice from America’s military leadership and public resistance to another “big” war in the Gulf.
While conceding that economic and diplomatic isolation is necessary, Romney insists that defusing Iran’s nuclear ambitions can only be achieved through the real threat of war – a plan that includes “repairing relations with Israel.” Unlike Obama, Romney would “never refuse a meeting” with Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu (a story that the White House denied), reject Israel’s insistence on a “red-line” for stopping Iran’s enrichment program, or throw Israel “under the bus.
Romney casts Obama as “pro-Palestinian,” reinforcing the twisted state of U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict under either candidate. In reality, Obama has abandoned the Palestinians and spent far more energy confronting the Iranians, as the Israelis prefer.
Upon taking office, Obama announced that he would break from the Bush administration’s 11th-hour drive for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and pursue an equitable two-state solution “from day one.” Sadly, Obama has fallen into the same trap of bias and inaction, even excluding the Palestinians from his acceptance speech at the DNC. If peace is harder to make than war, it stands to reason that greater energy must be applied.
As for Romney, he is far from eager to help the Palestinians and certainly more passionate about the Israeli cause. He claims that Iran, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, serves as the region’s central issue. Tehran’s regional policies admittedly run on a variety of unrelated interests, from Syria and Afghanistan to its hegemonic dispute with Saudi Arabia. Its nuclear ambitions may beyond compromise. Yet, at the same time, one cannot help observing that the Islamic Republic of Iran has never known a world with a sovereign Palestinian state. Should such a state come to be, one wonders how Iran’s regional ambitions and strategies might change.
Continuity on the Arabian Peninsula
In Yemen, the current administration has deployed Obama’s trusted counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as its lord of war and occasional senior “diplomat” in the country. Both he and U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, are extremely unpopular figures due to U.S. handling of Yemen’s ongoing revolution, its extensive drone program, and other covert U.S. activities in the country.
Romney would likely follow similar policies in Yemen by utilizing drones, Special Forces and CIA personnel to safeguard U.S. interests.
As Obama and Romney both operate their regional agendas on a steep Iranian tilt, U.S. policy toward Bahrain would also stay consistent between administrations – planted firmly on the side of Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s crackdown against pro-democracy forces.
America’s counterrevolutionary actions in select regional states have reinforced the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy in the region, especially toward the Libya and Syria interventions. Rather than pointing to this inconsistency, Romney has instead accused Obama of encouraging an “Islamic winter,” while portraying himself as tougher on Iran and Islamists.
Conclusion: Marooned on Hope Island
Given his own positions, Romney is clearly incapable of fostering lasting stability and peace in the Middle East. Improving the trajectory of U.S. policy in the region requires the type of personality that Obama promised and never delivered, making his failures historically significant.
Poll after poll concludes that Obama fell into an enormous trust gap left by previous administrations. Too many Muslims still perceive America as a unilateral actor in the region and an outright threat to their national interests. Accordingly, in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Yemen, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories and other regional countries entangled within U.S. foreign policy, Obama’s popularity remains very low.
Romney is minimally concerned with public relations in these countries. He is, nevertheless, right one on account: Obama has failed to deliver the leadership that he promised in the Middle East. Romney would, however, offer no respite from Obama’s fox-like friendship with the Palestinians and pro-democracy actors in the region.
The dilemma of lesser evils may be an inherent problem of democracy, but the ranking of America’s presidential candidates cannot be pegged to the failures of past leaders, such as George W. Bush. Finding a truly excellent candidate is an ideal worth pursuing. As for the diverse peoples of the Middle East, nothing has changed since Obama entered the Oval Office and nothing will change if Romney evicts him: they must still free themselves of foreign interference on the path toward determining their own future.
*James Gundun is a U.S. political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @RealistChannel.