Republicans betray their foreign policy tradition

By David Rohde
September 19, 2012

The release on Tuesday of Mitt Romney’s surreptitiously recorded comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict confirmed a sad truth about today’s Republican party. The GOP has gone from the party of strategic foreign engagement to the party of simplistic chauvinism.

The problem goes beyond Romney’s private comments at a Florida fundraiser in May. Repeatedly over the last week, his surrogates laid out a view of American foreign policy at odds with the party’s tradition of sophistication in foreign affairs.

It started with Liz Cheney. A day after four Americans were killed in Libya, Cheney accused the Obama administration of abandoning allies around the world and failing to intimidate Islamic militants.

“In too many parts of the world, America is no longer viewed as a reliable ally or an enemy to be feared,” Cheney wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Ask the mobs in Cairo who attacked our embassy, or the Libyan mobs who killed our diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.”

In a speech in Florida on Saturday, Paul Ryan continued on the same theme: Strength is the answer.

“If we project weakness, they come,” Ryan said, referring to those who might attack the U. S. “If we are strong, our adversaries will not test us and our allies will respect us.”

And Romney’s statements at the fundraiser displayed an astonishingly one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Echoing the arguments of right-wing Israelis, Romney declared that the Palestinians “have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” and could not be trusted to police their own territory, and that “there’s just no way” for a two-state resolution.

“You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem,” Romney said. “We have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”

Is this the party of John Foster Dulles, George Shultz and Howard Baker?

The broad, unspoken undercurrent of these comments is that the Middle East – from Palestinians to Libyans to Egyptians – is a monolith. That Arabs only understand strength. And that the region is backward. Those are dangerous, ignorant and counterproductive fallacies.

First, when it comes to Islamic militants, the idea of “intimidating” them is nonsensical. Radicals who long to die in battle will not be deterred by threats of death. Exceptions exist, but most believe they are fighting a vast Christian-Jewish-Hindu conspiracy to obliterate Islam from the face of the earth. We are dealing with a delusional enemy, not a group of Soviet Politburo members.

Yes, military force has a role in countering militancy. But force alone is not a cure-all.

Iran’s rulers must be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but pre-emptive air strikes will slow their weapons program, not eliminate it. Allowing sanctions and rising popular discontent to erode the regime’s hold on power is the best course.

Second, across the Middle East, the problem is not that the United States is seen as weak. It is that it is seen as a menacing, all-powerful force that uses its unrivaled military might to impose its will.

A June Pew Center public opinion poll in Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, found that clear majorities believe the U.S. acts unilaterally in the region. The American government is seen as being behind every major event in the Middle East – from the rebellion in Syria to the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victory in Egypt. The perceptions are illogical but real, and while conspiracy theories ought not influence policy, our problem is arrogance, not inaction.

Third, the Arab world is not a monolith. Nor are the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Clear majorities in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan support democracy, according to a July Pew public opinion poll. But after decades of the U.S. backing Arab dictators, many believe that the U.S. supports Israel more than it supports democracy.

Recent anti-American protests distort American views of the Arab Spring. The day after the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Libyans in Benghazi and Tripoli protested against the killings and apologized. “Sorry people of America this is not the pehaviour [sic] of our Islam and profit [sic],” one sign said. ”Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam,” read another placard.

Across the Middle East of the post-Arab Spring, moderates and hardliners are engaged in a historic struggle for power. Its outcome will affect the United States, its allies and the world economy for decades. Rather than falsely promising Americans that the U.S can ignore the problem, the U.S. must reimagine American influence in a changed region.

As I have written in the past, a clear message has emerged in interviews with Muslims across the Middle East and South Asia since 2001. They do not want to be dictated to by Americans. Nor do they want Islamic hardliners to impose an extreme version of Islam on them. Instead, they yearn for a third way where their countries can be both Muslim and modern.

I believe a new, more pragmatic and less military-oriented American policy in the Middle East will achieve more than the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did. In some instances, drone strikes, covert operations and lethal force may be necessary. But investment, education and training, and normalized relations, are just as important.

Today in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, young people yearn for American high-tech investments, trade and education. Public opinion surveys show an admiration for American technology, pop culture, democratic ideals and ways of doing business, particularly among the young. The rule of law, individual rights and consumerism are three of our most potent weapons against extremism.

The United States should ally itself with groups that support and abide by democratic norms, oppose violence and uphold international human rights laws, whatever their faith. Rather than boasting of our might, the core focus of American policy in the region should be how to quietly, consistently and effectively strengthen moderates over the long term.

The process will not be easy. We must learn to differentiate among groups. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political parties that won elections in Egypt and Tunisia are not ideal. But our true enemies – and theirs – are violent Salafist militants. We must judge groups by their actions, not by stereotypes.

The statements by Romney, Ryan and Cheney were, of course, political. All three were trying to create a compelling campaign narrative that appeals to voters: Obama is weak, military might alone can end terrorism, and foreign policy conundrums can be easily solved.

Yet for decades after World War Two, Republican presidents used a sophisticated combination of military force, diplomacy and economics to counter America’s enemies. They deftly created alliances, used American investment to help allies prosper, and patiently persevered. Over the last week, Romney, Ryan and Cheney betrayed that proud tradition.

PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leaves a campaign fundraiser in Salt Lake City, Utah, September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young

8 comments

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Excellent points. One other point to regard with the Arab Spring: even if conservative groups, such as the Islamic Brotherhood win, they still must govern. It’s easy to blame your woes on foreign meddling, but if you can’t keep the lights on, police the streets or provide opportunities for your growing population, you’ll be on the curb at the next election. Hamas has many more items to worry about after elections than a single faceted policy of lobbing rockets at Israel.

In a way, it also reflects Romney’s recent disregard of half the population. Democratically elected governments ignore constituents at their own risk; if the majority of your population wants peace, declaring war results in very real political losses.

Posted by Mike_s1 | Report as abusive

Thank you, Mr. Rohde. That is why I am putting an “I Like Ike” sticker on my car.

Posted by JBookly | Report as abusive

Since 2000 the Republicans have embraced the strategic thinking of the bull in a bullfight. Be the biggest and strongest, and attack blindly whenever anybody waves a red cape. Who usually wins the bullfight?

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

In a world of irrational accusations and often just plain bizarre comments the statements made by Liz Cheney and Paul Ryan quoted in this article actually manage to stand out. Do Ms. Cheney and Mr. Ryan believe that a weak U.S. government under the Reagan administration was responsible for the “accidental” attack on the USS Stark in 1987 which killed 37 U.S. Navy personnel and wounded 21 others? Do they believe that a failure to intimidate Islamic militants in Lebanon caused them to bomb the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 killing 241 American servicemen? Do they believe that Reagan’s response of withdrawing U.S. troops from Lebanon was a show of force? And most absurd of all, do they believe that it was the weakness of George W. Bush and Ms. Cheney’s father’s administration that caused Islamic terrorists to commit the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001? For her to have made these comments on the spot during an interview would have been bad enough, but to have actually composed them in writing is simply beyond belief.

If the continued killing of Americans and other NATO personnel in Afghanistan nearly a decade after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban and the slaughter of over 100,000 Iraqis and Afghans is not enough to convince them that a mere show of strength will not bring an end to Islamic militant terrorism then I can’t imagine anything will. I guess it’s much easier to hang on to the tough guy stance when it’s not you or your family that’s doing the dying.

Excellent article, Mr. Rohde, keep up the good work.

Posted by jtfane | Report as abusive

FEAR ↛ RESPECT!
FEAR → HATRED.

As explained (for example) by C.S.Lewis, the most common reaction to fear is hatred (which only breeds more extremism).

Fear didn’t work for long term good of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, in Afghanistan, or in the Cold War with the United States (it didn’t even work all that well for the British Empire in the days before modern journalism). Instead, the Soviet Union gradually bankrupted itself with increasingly paranoid measures designed to build their military into an increasingly fearsome machine, which they did at the expense of the general well-being of their core population.

The USA — the leader of the free world — needs to be more sophisticated than that.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

And the money? What are these countries doing in return for the aid the U.S. sends them. Lets take our troops, money, and ill advised support back home where it belongs.

Enough pontificating on the meaning of years past, who said what, when, and offended whom and start actually doing something.

Posted by niblick3 | Report as abusive

Romney’s inaccurate statement, geared for political advantage at a time of national crisis, proves that he is unfit to be President and Commander-in-Chief.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

Both Romney and Ryan lack foreign policy experience, worse their simplistic view of foreign relation through big stick is childish, short-sighted and dangerous. It did not work in the previous decades, there is no reason for this kind of policy to work in the 21st century. When further fueled by hot-head guys, like Trump and McCain, and other hawkish in GOP. We surely would engage into an arm race and/or a new war or two if they were ever elected.

Posted by Freedom4A | Report as abusive