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.
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