Say this for Mitt Romney, he stands his ground, just as his father George did two generations before. Even after the tragic death of Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, and with anti-U.S. violence in the Mideast continuing to threaten American lives, Romney ratcheted up his criticism of President Obama’s supposedly weak policies. “Apology for America’s values is never the right course,” Romney declared at news conference Wednesday morning.
But what if America’s values are themselves part of the problem? The unavoidable if unpleasant truth is that the advent of democracy in the region has presented Washington with a giant headache. The new democratic movements have mainly empowered Islamist parties and groups in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. So the administration has little choice but to engage these groups, but because they tend to be anti-American (and anti-Israel), Obama must do so warily, often with what the Republican nominee thunderingly criticizes as “mixed signals.”
And as any expert in the region will tell you, it’s not just Obama who will be stuck with this problem. Every American president will now have to walk a very careful line between supporting democracy in the Arab world and showing caution about whose hands it falls into, while at the same time keeping Arab military leaders from destroying these infant democracies. In Egypt, for example, Washington was not eager to endorse an interim constitution previously imposed by the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which tried to weaken the presidency, but neither is it going to want to back a prospective sharia-based constitution sought by the new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi. Hence it’s no surprise that the president fudged this week on whether to call Egypt an “ally.”
Romney insists he is speaking out only in an effort to correct Obama’s “disgraceful” mistakes in the region, including his failure to confront Iran more forcefully over its nuclear weapons program. And if the GOP candidate’s analysis is correct, Obama will likely face only more out-of-control chaos that could reflect badly on him come Nov. 6.
But if Romney is wrong—and even some of his fellow Republicans have questioned the tenor and timing of his remarks—then he may end up looking as naïve as his father, George Romney, did back in 1967 when he admitted to getting a “brainwashing” on Vietnam, thus undoing his own presidential bid. And Romney’s problem is that it wouldn’t be the first time he looked like an innocent abroad. During his trip overseas in July, Romney also drew criticism for what was deemed an out-of-touch comment. In a speech in Jerusalem, he said that "culture makes all the difference" in explaining the "stark difference in economic vitality" between Israelis and Palestinians, although even Israelis will concede that the occupation is a key reason for Palestinian economic backwardness.
This time too, many Mideast experts tend to back Obama and to label Romney as out of his depth (along with some Republican critics as well). “As with most of his foreign policy, there's no real sign of any deep thought here,” says Marc Lynch, the author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East. “The main ideas he does have -- that the region is calling out for American leadership, that bold rhetoric would change everything, that Obama has been weak or naïve -- are clearly wrong.” Nathan Brown, a Mideast scholar at The George Washington University, says “the Obama administration’s approach is actually extremely sound because it is based on a realization of what you can and can’t do. They’re dealing with the reality on the ground as opposed to the Middle East it would prefer to exist, which is what happened [with the Bush administration] a decade ago in Iraq.”
The president, adopting the faint mocking tone he has typically directed at Romney’s inexperience in foreign policy, told CBS’s 60 Minutes this week: “Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later." He added cuttingly: "As president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that … It's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts and that you've thought through the ramifications before you make them."
Since he delivered a now-famous speech in Cairo in 2009 seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”—a speech Republicans say was part of an “apology tour” -- Obama’s approach to the Arab world has combined tentativeness and toughness. The administration wavered in response on the Arab spring at first, tentatively defending Hosni Mubarak, and only reluctantly backed the NATO intervention in Libya. But Obama has also done much to discredit and seriously damage al-Qaida and other extremist elements.
By the time the Arab Spring was in full flower, Obama was well into a savagely successful military and drone program that took out Osama bin Laden and much of his top leadership, thus decimating the worst of the violent jihadists. At the same time Obama withdrew from Iraq, robbing al-Qaida of bin Laden’s old “far enemy,” the United States. Thus the Iraq withdrawal, the marginalization of al-Qaida, and the overturning of Mubarak, Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and other dictators together created a new atmosphere, opening up new channels of expression and supplying for the first time in decades an alternative to violent jihad. Experts point to fractionalizing of the Brotherhood and Salafist groups, which are being forced to govern pragmatically in the jostle for influence and power in their home countries.
Despite the horror of Stevens’ death under assault from a group of protesters and possibly militants, in truth more Islamists have been working with the U.S. than against it, including Egyptian President Morsi. In response to the attacks on U.S. buildings, the Islamist government of Egypt is walking its own fine line. “What you have right now is a Muslim Brotherhood president that has a decent government to government relationship with the U.S.,” says Brown. Thus, Morsi has called for prosecution of the makers of an anti-Muslim video that helped to trigger the violence this week—but nothing worse. “What they’re trying to do is express outrage but make sure it doesn’t interfere with anything” such as aid or Morsi’s tacit support for the Egypt-Israel treaty, Brown adds. “The Brotherhood calls for [anti U.S.] protests, but it’s clear they will be centered around mosques, but not on the U.S. embassy.”
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told National Journal Thursday it was important to “disaggregate” the administration’s general policies from the violent protests this week. “Nothing the administration has done has led to the protests in Cairo recently or the incidents in Benghazi or Sana’a [Yemen]. Those are sort of outside events based on a little-known film used to incite people,” he said. But in fact polls show high approval ratings for the U.S. in Libya and even Morsi has moved to protect U.S. buildings and personnel in recent days.
Even prominent neoconservatives such as Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer have outraged their former allies on the right by saying the U.S. has no choice but to engage the new Islamist political parties formed by the Muslim Brotherhood (which formally renounced violence decades ago) and other former jihadist groups. Another prominent figure on the right, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official who is deemed one of the most astute analysts of jihadism, wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently that it is unavoidable that “Islamists who braved the wrath of rulers and trenchantly critiqued the moral breakdown of their societies were going to do well in a post secular age. What is poorly understood in the West is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries. As counter intuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region.”
America, in other words, may simply have to endure an unpleasant Islamist middle stage—and Arabs may have to experience the failure of extremism in government, as the Iranians have—before the Arab world finally enters the modern world.
It’s not just Arab politics that have proved more complex than the campaign rhetoric often makes out. When it comes to Iran as well, Romney has criticized Obama for weakness in trying to negotiate. But in fact Obama dropped his “outstretched hand” approach to Tehran in 2010, and since then has applied tougher sanctions and underwritten covert action.
Was Romney out of line this week? It’s clear that the ugly temper of U.S. presidential politics has long since moved on from the days when Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican senator who reluctantly embraced the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, declared that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” American politics today is borderless. And so—depending on whom American voters believe on the Mideast, Obama or Romney – it’s entirely possible that the violence raging far away could affect this year’s presidential election far more than anyone imagined.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect timing for Romney's news confernence. He criticized the Obama administration's response at a news conference on Wednesday morning.