The Romney Camp’s Reckless Middle East Foreign Policy

Are a few political points worth tripping into another Central Asian quagmire?

web final baker 9 24 byedjohnson The Romney Camp’s Reckless Middle East Foreign Policy

Photoillo by Ed Johnson

“A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”
—Rudyard Kipling

At last, Mitt Romney has told us one specific thing he intends to do as president: get weapons to al-Qaeda.

Trying to salvage a week of self-evisceration on foreign policy from the Republican presidential nominee, his leading foreign policy advisors, Eliot Cohen and Richard Williamson, told The New York Times last Friday just what a President Romney would do differently in the Middle East. Their critique included the insistence that President Obama “engage” the rebels in Syria. According to the Times, they did “[stop] short of saying that the United States should provide lethal arms” but favored “facilitating” the provision of lethal arms from other Arab states.”

Mr. Williamson is a former diplomat, Mr. Cohen a former State Department official who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It must be very advanced, because for the life of me I can’t understand how it is that a gun, or a grenade, or a rocket launcher changes in nature when it is shipped out by, say, a Saudi prince instead of the U.S military.

The primary reason the United States has not done more to help the rebels in Syria has been that Islamic extremists, including members of al-Qaeda, are widely reported to be in their ranks. Mr. Obama and his advisors are reluctant to risk arming these elements, or to help put into power a regime worse than the one it replaced. They are engaging a treacherous and complex region with the prudence it requires.

A more sensitive politician than Mr. Romney, meanwhile, might have picked up on how one speaker after another in Tampa lambasted the president for supposedly “leading from behind”—while cleverly refraining from suggesting an alternative. Condi Rice typically demanded to know, “Where does America stand?” on Syria, but conspicuously did not offer a word about where it should stand.

Well, now we know. Just as the right-wing response to gun violence here in America is more guns, the Romney answer to the Middle East is more weapons, dispensed to who-knows-who, so long as we’re not the (direct) suppliers. This isn’t “standing up for American values,” it’s “plausible deniability.” Of course, we can rest assured that there will be no blowback from this course—just as there was none from supporting the Taliban against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

“Leading from behind” is the description of our recent policy in Libya, as attributed to an anonymous Obama staffer, and it was such a disaster that it left one of the world’s major sponsors of terrorism bleeding out in the sand at a cost of zero American lives. But such limited victories are hardly the style of Mr. Cohen, a Paul Wolfowitz protege who has for years been advocating “World War IV” against radical Islamism from his battle post on The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page.

For Mr. Cohen, the next front in this war is regime change in Tehran, a goal that conflates nicely with the right-wing trope that President Obama is a Neville Chamberlain-style appeaser at a moment of “existential” world crisis. Hence Dinesh D’Souza’s claims that the president has inherited an “anti-colonialist” mindset from his Kenyan father, the accusation by Charles Krauthammer that he pointedly returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British Embassy, Rudy Giuliani’s belief that Mr. Obama has an “almost irrational desire to negotiate” with Iran, and the charge by numerous leading Republicans that the president, in Mr. Romney’s words, intends to “hollow out our military through devastating defense budget cuts.”

Lending his support to such indictments was Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who asserted on 9/11 that the U.S. had lost the “moral right” to keep his country from launching a preventive attack on Iran. This was at best a thoughtless remark, coming as it did on the anniversary of the U.S. taking a pretty big bullet for our opposition to radical Islamism. It was also disingenuous. Mr. Netanyahu is not worried that we will prevent Israel from attacking Iran; he is worried that without our assistance such an attack will be ineffectual.

As Mr. Netanyahu knows, even a combined U.S.-Israeli air attack is unlikely to guarantee an end to Iran’s nuclear program. Confirmation will require yet another American invasion of a massive Central Asian country half the world away, this one with a population more than twice that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, infinitely more cohesive than those states and better equipped to defend itself.

Nothing would be more likely to unite the entire Islamic world against us—and to alienate our other allies. Nothing would be more likely to spark endless rounds of deadly terrorist attacks—especially here in this city.

Mr. Netanyahu has inserted himself directly into our electoral politics as no foreign leader ever has before. Throughout Mr. Obama’s time in office, he and his government have treated this American president with contempt and impatience, seeking every opportunity to publicly humiliate him and bring him to heel. Last March, he went so far as to equate the Obama administration’s refusal to move more swiftly against Iran with the War Department’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz as a way of saving European Jews from the Holocaust.

It’s an odious comparison—but one that upends his own argument. Bombing Auschwitz would have meant killing many of its prisoners outright. Those who survived and managed to escape would have had to make their way, starving and barely clothed, through the pitiless German and Polish populations surrounding them. Even bombing the rail lines to the camps would have been of dubious value; Allied fliers bombed rail networks relentlessly throughout World War II only to see the Germans assiduously rebuild them. To the very end of the war, the Nazi regime insisted on devoting significant resources to the slaughter of the Jewish people, and it’s hard to believe they would have stopped even if their death camps were destroyed.

The War Department made the strategic decision that the fastest way to end the Holocaust was to devote all of its resources to crushing the Nazis. In retrospect, it’s hard to argue with that. Meeting the terrible challenges that the world presents requires a steady nerve and real judgment. Making believe that the situation in Syria can be resolved with a few arms shipments (under the right label) is no more helpful—or realistic—than fantasizing that a wave of American bombers could have curtailed the Holocaust, or that another such wave can end Iran’s nuclear threat.