Romney and the Middle East

Campaign rhetoric generally strains credulity, and no less so during the recent Republican mobilization to unseat Barack Obama. From the GOP primaries to the present, the candidates – and now Mitt Romney in particular – have intensified the atmosphere where a candidate cannot possibly pledge with enough ardor – or redundancy – devotion to family, the Constitution, the free market, and Israel.

The first three talking points in the above list are generally meaningless, merely functioning as easy bona fides: Being pro-family is like being anti-genocide. The Constitution is merely a metonym for “America,” as is the phrase “free market,” despite its basic nonexistence. The subject of Israel naturally serves the same purpose, but is connected to the very real world of foreign policy.

On June 16, Romney addressed the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, DC, via video link, and during the Q&A session commented on the subject of Israel and Obama. His remarks invite comment, for what it’s worth given the context: Republicans seek much-needed votes among conservative Christian organizations on account of the GOP’s unrepresentative policy agenda; that is, tending to the needs of people like citizen Romney against the needs of the middle class people who, incidentally, make up the bulk of Christian evangelicals. As a result, the rhetoric is dialed up even more than usual and, as mentioned, this reality should be taken into consideration.

Generally speaking, caution is advised against immersion into the clamor of party politics. Voters do have serious, vested interests and therefore must negotiate the political order as it exists and try to determine where candidates stand. That being said, the blizzard of statistics, debates, soundbites, points, counterpoints, “gaffes,” and controversies offers little more than bewilderment; the media coverage alone is a national disgrace. A particular peril of this blizzard is that one can forget one is even in it. As a result, the population begins to adopt the language and vocabulary provided by the parties. And when the voting public’s words are supplanted, so to is its thinking. One then forgets (or suppresses) the original policy concerns he or she originally went in with. Roughly 70 percent of Americans want some kind of national, single-payer healthcare plan; but because this thinking is off the partisan spectrum, it’s off the agenda. Out of sight, out of mind – hence the value in taking heed.

Nevertheless, Romney’s message on Israel suggests an ultra-hawkish position on the Middle East and is worth a thought.

In his answer to a question about how, as president, Romney would strengthen ties with Israel, he replied that “by and large you could just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite.” I do not disagree with the former governor’s words here. A good way to improve on President Obama’s overall Middle East policy – not just Israel – would be to, in many instances, do the opposite:

  • * Cease the drone-attack policy
  • * Close Guantanamo Bay
  • * Withdraw from and internationalize a development effort in Afghanistan; pay reparations
  • * Place real pressure on Israel regarding settlements and diplomacy in accordance with international law, resulting in a Palestinian state
  • * Help foster real international diplomacy concerning de-escalation in Syria
  • * Rely on diplomatic strategies for dissuading Iran from ever moving toward uranium enrichment over 20 percent; normalize relations

When candidate Romney said “opposite” with regard to Obama’s handling of Israel, he of course didn’t mean opposite.

Romney then went on to raise a number of points including:

(1) criticizing Obama for “castigat[ing] Israel for building settlements”;

(2) alleging that the president seems “more frightened that Israel might take military action than he’s concerned that Iran might become nuclear”;

(3) lamenting Obama’s “insistence that Israel return to the ’67 borders, [which are] indefensible borders”;

(4) condemning Obama for being “disrespectful of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu”; and

(5) urging the further arming of the Syrian opposition.

The governor is off the mark on all five points.

First, the Obama administration has indeed been critical of Israel’s settlement program, which is standard White House policy and has been for decades. But being critical minus actual pressure equals consent. It should be pointed out that Israel’s building of settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank is in contravention of international law. What is more, Obama has done nothing to stop Israel’s settlement activity.

Second, Israel attacking Iran is precisely a frightening proposition. A number of US and Israeli security and defense elites have said as much. Therefore, fright is the appropriate response. Whether this is what Obama is experiencing is another matter. The president’s handling of Iran thus far has been irresponsible, illegal, and has likely inspired Tehran to at least further weigh the benefits of joining the nuclear club. Into the bargain, Israel has been allowed a great deal of latitude on the issue and has been afforded ample room in the American press to set the tone for discussion (see New York Times Magazine, Jan. 25, 2012). And it bears repeating that there is no evidence that Iran is heading toward a weapons program.

Third, the June 1967 borders – also called the Green Line – are the internationally recognized borders between Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and have been the diplomatic point of departure for 45 years. Obama’s position is not new, and again, the White House has done absolutely nothing on this point.

Fourth, Romney’s stated concern for how the president of the United States has treated Israel’s prime minister is more strange than anything else. Israel is a US client and is actually expected to be recalcitrant to a degree. When Israel goes too far, its leash gets jerked. Tel Aviv’s diplomatic embarrassment of Vice President Joe Biden in spring 2010 with an announcement of major settlement expansion was just such a case, for which Netanyahu was roundly reprimanded. There have been many other instances. Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was brought to heel by George H. W. Bush in 1992, when documents thoroughly embarrassing to Israel started to get “leaked” after the prime minister crossed the line concerning, again, settlements. It is doubtful Romney knows this history. It is doubtful he even cares how one leader treats another. It is also doubtful his national allegiance is split (it being uncertain he has any to begin with), but one could possibly be within bounds to question him on this point.

Finally, the fact that segments of the opposition in Syria armed themselves in the first place explains much of the destruction and bloodshed. This in no way excuses Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s brutality. But further arming the Free Syrian Army and others – which the Obama administration is indirectly involved in vis-a-vis Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (Independent, June 13) – can only inflame matters. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s peace initiative is a sensible path. Romney’s is not.

Watching Mitt Romney over the last year, it is difficult if not impossible to determine where he stands. Therefore, one can only take him at his word and evaluate what he happens to be saying at that particular moment. On the topic of Israel and Middle Eastern policy, he has made similar remarks in the past. Whether he believes them, or stands behind them, or is simply playing to the room is anyone’s guess. Beyond the inaccuracies and inconsistencies, where might a President Romney fall in on the subject of the Middle East? Though an equally speculative issue, a plausible, sober answer appeared in the May issue of Foreign Policy in an article entitled “Barack O’Romney.”

The piece was authored by Aaron David Miller, a former State Department envoy and longtime adviser on Middle East diplomacy, and his conclusion is quite simple: “there’s just not that much difference between the two.” In other words, when it comes to foreign-policy formulation, Obama and Romney are cut from the same bolt of fabric. Miller, a stalwart insider and meticulous custodian of American power in the Middle East – and protector of Israel’s diplomatic preferences – can spot his own kind with equanimity.

Irrespective of who wins this November, continuity will likely, and sadly, be the victor. If there is, however, any sincerity in Romney’s campaign pronouncements and he wins, the outcome could be much worse.

GREGORY HARMS is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (2nd ed., Pluto Press, 2008), and  Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: US Foreign Policy, Israel, and World History (Pluto Press, 2010) and the 2012 forthcoming It’s Not about Religion (Perceval Press).