Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Romney's 'vision' for the Middle East

Republican candidate Mitt Romney delivered one of the most comprehensive speeches on foreign policy so far, where he promised Americans a different course on major issues. At the top of the regions Romney addressed is the Middle East, Ezzat Ibrahim reports from Washington

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Mitt Romney

In a recent US public opinion survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 73 per cent of Americans say that in the future, the greatest threats to US security will originate in the Middle East and only two in 10 believe these threats will come from Asia. The survey found out that "concern about international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and Iran's nuclear programme contribute to this belief. "

But compared to 10 years ago, perceptions of these threats as critical have receded. International terrorism, a top concern for Americans over the past decade, is seen as a critical threat by 67 per cent of Americans today, down from 91 per cent in 2002."

The influx of news coming from the Middle East in the last 20 months pushed the region again to the forefront of the American public conscious and implicated the foreign policymaking process as never before. The stumbled transformation in Arab Spring countries has added new challenges to the US policy towards the region and created a room for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney to punch at the Democratic president.

At a critical time, the attack on the US diplomatic missions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has left an incurable mark on Barack Obama's Middle East policy. Almost six week before the presidential elections, the attacks on US embassies, following the anti-Islam movie, offered Romney an opportunity to launch a blitz against the White House where he described the US policy in the region as a "failure".

In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Romney said that the US seems to be "at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies." Indeed, he warned against the possibility of dramatic changes in the region: "if the Middle East descends into chaos, if Iran moves toward nuclear breakout, or if Israel's security is compromised, America could be pulled into the maelstrom. We still have time to address these threats, but it will require a new strategy toward the Middle East."

The Republican camp is now playing on the "fear factor" that the Chicago Council showed among average Americans towards the possible threats from the Middle East. In a direct reference to the relationship that Obama is building with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other Islamists in power in a number of countries, Romney insists that the US president is harming the country stature in the Middle East: "our values have been misapplied -- and misunderstood -- by a president who thinks that weakness will win favour with our adversaries."

In fact, Romney's approach is closely watched by "independent voters", as the harsh language against Obama and asserting a foreign policy strategy based on showing the US strengths all over the world is beginning to resemble George W Bush's controversial policies. According to some analysts, independent voters may be concerned by the fact that Romney has surrounded himself with some neoconservative foreign policy advisers, who played a critical role in the Iraq war.

The public opinion surveys have not given Romney a lead on foreign and national security issues. Recent polls suggest that the Obama administration has toppled the Republican advantage on these issues and such lead is reinforced by the fact that Obama is the president who gave the orders to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan last year.

Yet, strategists on the side of Romney campaign are building an offensive plan that takes into consideration the tumbling of President Obama's approval on the handling of foreign policy. Last September, polls show that the voters' approval declined to 49 per cent compared to 57 per cent in September 2010. Attacking the president on Libya and the killing of the US ambassador in a terrorist operation in Benghazi would be one of Romney's tactics to convince voters that Obama has led the US leadership to a trophy.

In a major foreign policy speech on Monday, Romney promised to restore US traditional role on the international stage based on increasing the US influence through military and economic power. He used the attack of the American consulate in Benghazi to emphasis the needed change in the US policy towards the Middle East: "The attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts. They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East -- a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century. And the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself," he said, accusing President Obama of being passive to the course of events out there. "It is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history -- not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events."

The failure to lead was the main theme of Romney's talk on Iran, Israel security, Syria, Iraq and Arab Spring transitions. The Republican candidate called for a review to US positions on each individual issue: "In Egypt, I will use our influence -- including clear conditions on our aid -- to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid."

Jay Carney, the White House spokesperson, responded to Romney by saying: "one of the things that I think is striking about the speech that Governor Romney gave is that on the one hand he suggests the president hasn't been supportive enough of the democratic aspirations of people in the region, and on the other hand he suggests that we should withdraw our conditioned support for those who are trying to achieve a brighter future, a more democratic future in the region."

Romney's focus on the Middle East and terror threat to US interests, because of Al-Qaeda spreading presence all over the region, made the speech a cornerstone in the plan of getting the support of the decisive element in the coming elections -- independent voters. One of the reasons that Romney speech can resonated with more swing voters is the fact that he sketched out a comprehensive plan for each country in the Middle East.

His promises include arming rebels in Syria, restoring commitment to traditional allies, and increasing US military spending to enhance American force in Asia and the Middle East and a more assertive role in the world based on an obligation to lead despite difficult times inward. Other pledges include; working with US allies to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, support a lasting representative government in Libya and chasing the perpetuators on Benghazi consulate, a transition to Afghan security forces before the end of 2014, reform foreign assistance mechanism by creating incentives for good governance, free enterprise and greater trade, and steering the world onto the path of freedom, peace and prosperity.

Following the speech, major newspapers and networks could not agree with the right-wing media that Romney knocked Obama out. For example, The Washington Post editorial described it as "talking tough, without specifics, on the Middle East." Almost a month before the elections, Romney seems reluctant to charting a more aggressive policy. According to the Washington Post: "it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr Romney, like Mr Obama, is avoiding the embrace of a more robust Mideast policy out of fear of offending voters weary of international conflict or of dividing his own advisers."

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