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Foreign Policy: A Critique of the Romney Plan

Posted By Grim • [October 01, 2012] Mr. Romney has published a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the Middle East. He has a strong critique of the President's policy, but his own plan is only about halfway there.

He's good on Israel: I understand exactly what he intends to do, and it probably would be stabilizing versus the President's strange approach. He's pretty good on Iran, although neither he nor the President are clear about exactly where Iran cannot go, and exactly what steps they believe will be adequate to enforce that declaration. Are we talking about another round of economic sanctions? (Sanctions are a terrible idea, by the way, although a popular one with Presidents; but sanctions cannot prevent a bomb if the government is determined to develop one, as they will nevertheless leave adequate wealth in the society for expropriation to that purpose. Sanctions can hurt the people of Iran, and they can further damage our ability -- probably already ruined for the remainder of this President's tenure -- to be taken seriously as allies by any reformers looking abroad for hope.)

If not that, then just what are we prepared to do?

Perhaps there are answers to that internal to the Romney campaign, which he simply thinks do not belong in the newspaper. Fair enough, although this is one place where clarity about "red lines" seems to be desirable. At least his mind seems to be in the right place here.

Less so is this true when he speaks about the Arab spring movements. I'm going to run through these comments in detail.
The Arab Spring presented an opportunity to help move millions of people from oppression to freedom. But it also presented grave risks. We needed a strategy for success, but the president offered none. And now he seeks to downplay the significance of the calamities of the past few weeks.... [good policy] means using the full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression. The dignity of work and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism.

So, the thinking here is that we have an objective -- move people from tyranny to freedom -- and what is needed is a stratagem.  That stratagem is using soft power to encourage job creation.  

That's wrong on both points.  First, these movements are not about American objectives, but rather they are independent movements with their own objectives.  Only sometimes are these objectives capable of being satisfied by economic development.  Nor are these movements homogeneous enough for us to impose a simple objective upon them.  We need to consider the character of the "tyranny" involved, and the character of the revolutionary movement, before we endorse it.  

By the first I mean that some of these states are worse than others, and by the second I mean that there are some bad actors manipulating (or even ginning up) these movements.  Bahrain, for example, hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, and has at times been under pressure from a movement of Shi'ite citizens that shows signs of Iranian influence.  There are legitimate human rights issues, but here we are talking about a place where soft power and diplomacy really are appropriate responses.

In other cases, where the revolutionaries are Sunnis, we see that al Qaeda and allied movements turn out to be engaged in the revolutions as well as independent citizens.  In cases where a tyranny is bad enough that we wish to step up with a plan to help move the citizens 'from tyranny to freedom,' we have to ask whether and to what degree we can disaggregate the liberation movement from the Qaeda-type movement.  If the answer is that we cannot, that's something we have to take on board.

The President's apparent lack of an overarching plan here is -- I think it is fair to say -- largely an outgrowth of the need to treat each of these movements independently.  Even so we can disagree with how he has handled some of the situations.  I think he handled the Libyan adventure very well initially, though he has come under righteous fire lately for having not provided adequate security and presence more recently.  Even there, though, it is worth remembering that security is often traded for influence.  The safer you are in your embassy, the less you are out among the people.  It is possible to err on both sides of this question.  The President and the Secretary of State clearly erred in this case, but the impulse to keep the presence light and engaged is not a bad one.  This is how the Special Forces operate, and if the State Department can hang, it's often a good model when engaging in what amounts to irregular warfare.  There are also some hopeful signs that the Qaeda elements can be disaggregated, though this is still early.

Other cases are ripe for criticism.  In Yemen, we seem to have fallen into being manipulated into backing one side of a tribal conflict because that side happens to have control over the machinery of government.  Insofar as we have a legitimate interest there, it's in the AQAP, but we are not going after them as directly as we could.  

In Egypt, it looks as though there has been a major diplomatic failure that is squarely the President's fault -- not for  his remarks, but for what they reveal about his conception about our relationship to Egypt.  We are exactly where he thinks we should be with Egypt, as an admirer writes here.  This is an area where clear criticism, and a plan to repair the situation, are welcome.  Certainly economic development will be a crucial part of any plan, because Egypt is food-poor, and therefore highly unstable.  A great start would be to end the policy of introducing ethanol into American gasoline.  If you must continue subsidizing the farmers, buy the corn and sell it in the global food market to help lower food costs, which are driving instability in many places.

In Syria, soft power and economic aid of the type Mr. Romney suggests are entirely inadequate to the situation.  There is also a significant disaggregation problem regarding the insurgency.  Furthermore, the Sunni-led insurgency in Syria neighbors increasing violence in Iraq, where the Sunnis who helped us defeat al Qaeda have been abandoned by US policy, and are being unfairly treated by their government.  So far our response has been to send Special Forces to help the central government against the insurgents.  Instead we should be reconnecting with our former allies, and helping them achieve a more just settlement within Iraq in return for leveraging their connections to identify and isolate the Qaeda elements in the Syrian insurgency.  If we can do that, we can support the Syrian people against a government that truly is tyrannical.

Finally, the rock of American foreign policy in the Middle East should be developing our own oil and natural gas resources.  That is coherent with Mr. Romney's suggestion that America needs to restore its "sinews," including economic and military strength. 


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