Top Ten Things Mitt Romney Gets Wrong about US Middle East Policy

Gov. Romney published an op-ed on Monday criticizing President Obama’s Middle East policies. Aside from urging ‘strength,’ however, Romney offers no concrete alternative. And, he completely misunderstands the history of the US role in the region, which causes him to misunderstand its present dilemmas.

Romney says,

“The first step is to understand how we got here. Since World War II, America has been the leader of the Free World. We’re unique in having earned that role not through conquest but through promoting human rights, free markets and the rule of law. We ally ourselves with like-minded countries, expand prosperity through trade and keep the peace by maintaining a military second to none.”

In fact, the United States after World War II was mainly concerned with securing petroleum for its European and Asian allies, and with keeping Communist influence out. These interests caused it to promote dictatorship, not democracy.

1. In 1953, the United States overthrew the elected, parliamentary government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, at the insistence of Big Oil. Iran had nationalized its petroleum, and Mosaddegh had allowed Communists (along with liberals and fundamentalist ayatollahs) into his coalition. The US CIA thus implemented a coup plan originally drawn up by Britain’s MI6 on behalf of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP). The king, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was brought back and installed as a capitalist dictator, his secret police trained by the CIA. Romney doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of understanding Iran’s current resentments toward the US if he doesn’t know we installed a dictator there. Moreover, the US, France and Britain winked at or actively helped Israel get the nuclear bomb, and allowed it to blackmail Middle Eastern rivals with it, inspiring the Islamic Republic of Iran with fear that the US and its ally would try to dominate or overthrow it.

2. The US tried to build up the Wahhabi, fundamentalist king of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, as the natrual leader of an reinvigorated Islam. Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan were most invested in this promotion of Saudi Arabia as regional leader, in part because they feared that Islam was collapsing and being replaced by a kind of secularism that might lean left and go socialist or Communist. All of the absolute monarchies of the Middle East have been faithful clients of the United States, and no American president has ever brought up democracy or the rule of law with Saudi Arabia or any of the others. In fact, Reagan even pressured the Saudis to donate money to right wing groups and governments in Central America, contributing to death squads and the collapse of the rule of law there. By encouraging governmental and private Saudi efforts to intervene to overthrow Communist Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Reagan administration contributed to the creation of al-Qaeda, the Mojahedin and their successor, the Taliban. Muslim militancy comes in part out of US anti-Communism and use of Islam and preference for private anti-communist militias.

3. In 1967, Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian territories that had not been awarded to Israel even by the 1947 UN General Assembly partition plan (which itself had little authority since the Security Council never passed it). Under the UN Charter, it is illegal for post-WW II states to simply annex their neighbors’ territory by war. By both the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1949, it is illegal for an Occupying power to alter the lifeways of occupied populations or to transfer their own citizens into occupied territories. Despite occasionally paying lip service to these principles of international law, the United States has de facto backed to the hilt the Israeli Occupation of millions of stateless Palestinians, and the gradual creation of an Apartheid, replete with bantustans, checkpoints, identity passes, denial of basic human rights, and even, in the case of the Gaza Strip, forbidding most exports under a Draconian blockade of the civilian population. This outbreak of settler colonialism in the region is absolutely unacceptable to all 300 million Arabs and a constant source of tension between the Arab world and the US. There is nothing the least bit democratic or redolent of the rule of law about the way the Israelis control the West Bank. At the same time, the Israelis annexed the Golan Heights from Syria, a step the US more or less supports, making for tense relations with Damascus (it is illegal to annex territory from your neighbor).

4. Once the Egyptian miitary dictatorship (which first came to power in 1952) decided under Anwar El Sadat to become a US client state and to make peace with Israel, in 1978-79, the US government backed it to the hilt and made that dictatorship the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid, to the tune of $1.5- 2 billion a year! Despite some gentle chiding from the Bush administration in 2005, the US never put any effective pressure on dictator Hosni Mubarak to democratize. Romney has elsewhere implied that Bush was making progress in this regard and that Obama abandoned the ‘freedom agenda.’ But it was Bush who abandoned that agenda, in 2006, after the Muslim Brotherhood got 88 seats in the parliamentary elections of late 2005– which put a scare into Washington and Tel Aviv. You can’t see US policy in Egypt 1979-2008 as in any way backing ‘democracy.’ After 9/11 the US sent prisoners to Egypt to be tortured. As for the ‘freedom agenda’, its centerpiece for Bush was the invasion and occupation of Iraq, for which the Arab people have never forgiven the US.

Because of the close entanglement of the US with Mubarak and because of the brutal occupation of Iraq, the main task of Washington in Egypt is not to be forceful or any of Romney’s other platitudes, it is to convince the young people who overthrew their corrupt tyrant to forgive the US and to let bygones be bygones. How would Romney reach out to the crucial new generation in the Arab world?

5. Once the crazed dictator of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi, agreed to turn over some rotting nuclear blueprints and some chemical weapons, in 2004, the Bush administration was perfectly willing to do business with him and rehabilitate him. It even sent political prisoners to him to have them tortured. As recently as last week, Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert complained bitterly that Obama had allowed our good friend Qaddafi to be overthrown. Backing Qaddafi is hardly democratic or a promotion of the rule of law.

So, Mr. Romney does not understand ‘how we got here.’ By supporting oil despots to the hilt, backing corrupt and/or mercurial military dictators, waging a war of aggression on and occupying Iraq, and de facto supporting Israeli coloniization of Palestinian territory, the US made itself a monster from the point of view of ordinary Arabs and Iranians.

Romney is not better when he addresses the current situation:

“In Syria, tens of thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power, and the country’s peace treaty with Israel hangs in the balance. In Libya, our ambassador was murdered in a terrorist attack. U.S. embassies throughout the region have been stormed in violent protests. And in Iran, the ayatollahs continue to move full tilt toward nuclear-weapons capability, all the while promising to annihilate Israel.”

Romney is not actually doing an analysis of the situation in the Middle East. He is just trying to draw up a laundry list of things he thinks are going wrong, without regard to their causes or whether the US could actually do anything about them.

6. Romney himself called for Hosni Mubarak to step down, on Feb. 1, 2011, and he just said that the US should promote democracy in the Middle East. So why is he belly-aching about the Muslim Brotherhood winning a democratic election in Egypt? Does he want military dictatorship back? (Wouldn’t that contradict his assertion that the US stands for democracy?) How would he have stopped the Muslim Brotherhood from winning June’s presidential election? How would he deal with President Muhammad Morsi if he were elected president? Boycott him? Why? Because the Religious Right has no business in politics? Shouldn’t that apply to the Republican Party, too, then? As for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, Morsi has reaffirmed it. Is Romney calling him a liar?

7. The US intelligence establishment said in National Intelligence Estimates in 2007 and 2010 that Iran has no military weapons program, and there is no evidence for weaponization of its nuclear enrichment. Our Pentagon officers have repeatedly said that even if Iran did have weapons ambitions, the only practical way to stop them would be to invade and occupy the country (which they advise against). Since Romney keeps saying he’d forward military policy to his generals, wouldn’t his hands be tied on Iran just as much as Obama’s are? Romney advocates deeper sanctions against Iran, but Obama’s sanctions are now so severe as to constitute a sort of intangible blockade (via banks, trade pressures) and already risk pulling the US willy nilly into a war. How in the world could Romney do more short of going to war? And if he does intend to go to war with Iran, a country 3 times as populous and much bigger than Iraq, he should tell us now.

8. US embassies in the Middle East were mostly not ‘stormed,’ but demonstrations were held outside them and a few were attacked. The Salafi hard liners responsible for these actions are a small group. What would Romney do about random Salafis in Tunisian villages? Drone them to death? Embassy security is *very* good at most embassies, and short of making them useless as embassies by fortifying them further, it is hard to see what Romney would do differently. Moreover, the trouble was caused in part by American Muslim-hatred and concerted attacks on Islam by a faction in the Republican Party. How eould Romney make his evangelicals happy while repairing relations with Muslims. Or does he intend just to invade and occupy the Muslims the way Bush did?

9. While it is true that a small terrorist cell attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and set a fire that killed the US ambassador to Libya, it is also true that tens of thousands of Libyans demonstrated in favor of America and the ambassador, and that the elected president of the Libyan parliament just called for a secular, democratic state in that country. None of the good news, about the progress of democracy or general pro-American sentiment, would have been possible had the Republican Party had its way and prevented the US from supporting the UN Security Council resolution calling for all necessary measures to be taken to protect the Libyan people from their murderous government. As for the terrorist cell, some of its members were likely encouraged by the US to have fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, where they became radicalized — a karma Romney doesn’t want to face. Others probably fought the US occupation of Iraq, a war Romney has been on both sides of. Others were upset at the US for backing Qaddafi under Bush. The militants didn’t arise in a vacuum, and the Republicans now saying the US should have been more watchful about Libyan Muslim militants would be better off apologizing for having helped create them in the first place.

10. Romney is not allowed to bring up the civil war/ revolution in Syria unless he is willing to say what he’d do different about it. He doesn’t say so in this op-ed. He has talked about invading if Syria uses chemical weapons, but are there any other red lines? Just complaining is not policy-making, Mr. Romney. What would you *do* about Syria?

Romney’s understanding of the challenges for the US in the Middle East is backwards, and so are his vague prescriptions. Military might, which you trumpet as the solution, is useless in the face of popular movements, Mr. Romney, and the US army could have done nothing to keep Mubarak in power or to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from winning elections. An even more fawning policy toward the Israeli Right Wing is not going to solve any of our problems in the Middle East, but rather will exacerbate them as Apartheid becomes more severe. And we’re already on a war footing with Iran, and any increase in tensions is very dangerous unless it has a clear and achievable policy objective (dissuading Iran from nuclear enrichment is not achievable).

As a new generation democratizes and public opinion becomes important, US public diplomacy and reaching out to young people becomes crucial. Seeking a modus vivendi with ascendant political Islam is now pivotal, because the US has fewer and fewer puppets under its thumb. Are you good at public diplomacy toward the Muslim world, Mr. Romney?

34 Responses

  1. Excellent historical and contemporary analysis, as always, Dr. Cole. It’s so easy for us to conveniently forget our country’s involvement in “how we got here.” And it always has a bearing on the present, which is what so many short-sighted people seem to not understand.

  2. [In 1953, the United States overthrew the elected, parliamentary government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, at the insistence of Big Oil. Iran had nationalized its petroleum, and Mosaddegh had allowed Communists (along with liberals and fundamentalist ayatollahs) into his coalition. The US CIA thus implemented a coup plan originally drawn up by Britain’s MI6 on behalf of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP).]

    Early in the Arab Spring, it was politically convenient to support fair elections in Tunisia and Egypt. But just a few months later, it turned out that it is necessary to support Islamist guerrillas in Libya and in Syria.

    So, it hardly makes much sense to project modern concern about fair elections to Iran in the early 1950-ies and lament about supporting the Shah against Mosaddegh 60 years ago! Especially considering that it was a completely different epoch when clean fair elections were taken much less seriously than now.

    • @Henry James:
      What you say here is of course mostly true, as far as it goes, in terms of Realpolitik, but it also completely misses professor Coles point: Romney is content to remain ignorant on these matters (at best…), and paint everything the US has done in the ME with a nice coat of whitewash.

    • Was it not Romney who brought up the era “since World War Two,” and claimed that we spent that era allying ourselves with democratic governments and promoting human rights?

  3. Ref: Iran and the current sabre rattling: I am mystified that no one is talking about how a fair draft will be instigated in the US. Occupation of / security in Iran will take, I would think, huge numbers of troops. I do not think we have enough troops in our volunteer military. Yet NO ONE seems to be even speaking of a draft. Why would that be??

    • It’s not occupation, it’s “bombcupation”. I’m sure the bomb factories have not been idle. Like McCain sang “bomb, bomb, bomb________bomb, bomb Iran.

      Whatever horror bombcupation creates (and there will be horror), it will not interfere with our shopping and social networking. No US casualties – what, me worry?

    • Perhaps because there isn’t the slightest chance of the United States invading Iran, and everyone in Washington knows it. There is a lot of bluffing going on.

    • Well, you see, Iran is the biggest scariest threat we’ve ever faced – but we can them out with a few well-placed smart bombs.

      They’re both an existential threat and a pushover at the same time.

      Kind of sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

  4. Romney is blinded by American propaganda and thus cannot conceive of or perceive facts that contradict his beliefs. This in a sense is a distortion of the philosophy of ‘positive thinking’. If you believe strong enough it will be true, belief changes everything. It’s the basis of good salesmanship, and America more than anything else is about salesmanship. In fact you could say the elections are just that and that is why it comes down to money. The general public does not know or care about what actually took place in the Middle East. They want Hollywood heroes to lead them to victory and success.
    ‘Hollywood, Hollywood, on the wall,
    Who is the fairest of them all ?”
    The answer is always the same: USA! USA!

  5. “Democracy” to Romney (and sadly, to most Americans) does not mean “rule of the elected” but “rule of people who believe what we believe.”

    Thanks for this excellent write-up, which I found through Jay Lake. I also listened last night to three authors of the “nonpartisan” U.S. government/military Iran Report, which I also thought was excellent and informative.

  6. I don’t think a draft will be instituted because I don’t think that the US has the stomach for another war after a decade of pointless casualties and trillions wasted in Afghanistan and Iraq. Besides, Iran is too big and the centrifuges too dispersed. Also, any military action will not stop Iran from acquiring nukes; it will simply delay it. Ultimately, the US has to learn to live with a nuclear Iran. The only solution would be to impose a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone on the entire MidEast including Israel. Don’t think that will happen though.

  7. Didn’t George the Lesser say something like “My job is to keep repeating things”? Romney is recounting the American myth, in front of the American virtual fireplace. It’s the American lullaby. Sleep children sleep, daddy will watch over you.

  8. Yesterday, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina spoke in North Augusta. Here is the recording of the Q&A period.

    link to aymanfadel.tumblr.com

    He demonstrated many of the same problems, but he is much smoother than Gov Romney and comes off as a statesman. He is very dangerously shilling for war with Iran. He assumes implicitly the virtue of US hegemony.

  9. Even if one buys into Romney having a sane underlying conservatism, saying whatever silly things he needs to say, expecting to make a quick etch a sketch following the election…..

    And even if you further understand Romney is a smart guy, and an excellent executive who’d manage his administration better than he’s now managing his campaign…..

    Then what you cannot help but see is a guy who has lost whatever integrity he might once have had. Romney has made so many compromises and cut so many moral/political corners to get to where he now stands, that the potential of his election would be that of an empty-suit presidency.

    • C’mon — “integrity” is a meaningless word once you get inside the Imperial Beltway, or even start to get close to it. And that “Beltway” word is just a shorthand generic for pretty much any place where money and power congregate in their irresistible bloody concupiscence.

      “Integrity,” the characteristic (as opposed to the handlers’ carefully manufactured “selling point”) is a positive handicap in any Player in the Great Game. Ask Tom Clancy and other luminaries who spend time inside the imaginary heads of rulers, doers and shakers. As just one sorry little example of the whole literature of corruption and “humanity,” from my little store of 3×5 cards.

      There’s whole books written about Lying, the Art — and how to lie — and whole classes, not always in the formal curriculum of course, in higher education, including B-school and the War College, that start with Machiavelli and Sun Tzu and other Great Devious Minds that teach us the “how,” including the how-to-justify-and-rationalize-post-hoc-and-pre-hoc. But you guys who do that kind of stuff every day, for sport or professionally, have to provide your own “why.” Too bad that you can’t provide any real actual “victories” to justify the bloody hands and destruction of stability and community.

      You can only drain just so much blood out of a human body, individual or corporate (in the more decent, communitarian sense of that word), before the heart rate and rhythm go all to hell, consciousness fades, and eventually respiration gets labored and finally ceases altogether.

      • “Integrity,” is maybe too slippery a word. Let’s say a relative capability of staying the wiser course or in pursuit of his goals. For example, Obama has done relatively well in finessing Bibi re Iran, even as an apparent sincere commitment to address the Israeli/Palestinian situation (ie, his Cairo speech), has been blown onto the rocks.

        Whatever good anyone may find in Romney or the GOP in general (they’re not Socialists!), the guy is hopelessly compromised. In its own special way, a Romney administration would be as bad as Bush the Younger.

  10. Its useful to know the real score. However, this is public debate, rather than academic truthseeking that we are about to witness. By and large the public is ignorant of the history and would rather believe the pleasant myth that RMoney is peddling. Going against the myth, opens one up to the risk of being portrayed as less than 100% pro American. I’m not confident that truth will prevail.

    • Bingo. Its all about perceptions, and facts and rationality are going to take the backseat, if that.

      The hope is the professional, established military and FP bureaucracies are entrenched enough and competent enough not to, well, let happen what happened before. Given how it really was less than a dozen easily named individuals who managed to get us into Iraq in 03, I’m not that hopeful.

      What we can hope to do is delay or defect them. But these guy, as I’m perpetually reminded, are nothing if not relentless: they’ve been at their game a long time and they just keep after it…

  11. Superb as usual……I haven’t seen a better exposition of the back story to the ongoing “War on Terror.”

    I was aware of most of this background but could never have explained it with such an economy of verbiage. Bravo Dr. Cole!

  12. This excellent analysis should be read by everyone who wishes to vote in the forthcoming election. The neoconservatives who have brought the world to the present perilous situation want to turn the clock back, despite the fact that their warmongering philosophy was rejected roundly by American people and has been shown as a ghastly failure by history.

    Do they think that the Americans have such a short memory and have already forgotten the calamity that President Bush’s wars created for America and the world. Even President Bush learned that lesson during his second term. Governor Romney and his ultra rightwing advisors are much more extreme and dangerous than even President Bush and Vice-President Cheney during their first term.

    • “The neoconservatives who have brought the world to the present perilous situation want to turn the clock back, despite the fact that their warmongering philosophy was rejected roundly by American people and has been shown as a ghastly failure by history.” Yes, it was indeed “roundly rejected”, but is none the less firmly ensconsed in the Obama administration and in the Democratic Party, in and out of the federal legislature.

  13. This sort of blindness to facts seems to be common for GOP “bigshots”. I don’t think they are idiots. I don’t think Romney cannot see himself what is written in this article. It’s just that they genuinely have no interest in the rule of law or justice in Middle East but they cannot say so. They just don’t care but they cannot admit it.

  14. Thanks for sharing this with us Juan. Each point clearly contradicts every point (or non-point) made by Romney in his WSJ op-ed.

    I wish I could see this tomorrow as an op-ed in the WSJ (and every other major publication for that matter).

  15. The only logic to the Republican agenda is best expressed in the Groucho Marx song “Whatever it is, I’m against it”

    “Your proposition may be good
    But let’s have one thing understood
    Whatever it is, I’m against it!
    And even when you’ve changed it
    Or condensed it
    I’m against it!”

  16. Most of the NEOCONs advising Mitt Rmoney were born after WWII and ditched any History classes to finish their Poly Sci homework.

    Dr. Cole, right now is one of those times when your presence on our media is vital – your insight and counsel are priceless.

  17. “…military second to none…” When’s the last time the United States defeated a roughly comparable enemy force? By my reckoning, it was the Japanese in the Pacific in 1945.

    • The Japanese were like a 145-lb guy who knew Karate, going up against a 240-lb guy who was in good shape but at the moment unprepared for a fight. They had one good groin shot to intimidate the US. As Yamamoto essentially said, when he learned the Pearl Harbor had missed the US carriers, their utter defeat was just a matter of time…….

    • Well, there’s the thing: “roughly comparable enemy force.” There are no roughly comparable enemy forces.

      Which sort of proves the point, no?

  18. It is clear now that many conservatives demand new enemies, and new attacks, regardless of any real danger. Thus the mature war economy produces these benefits:

    1. permanent excuse to cut wages and social services

    2. unbridled nationalist tribalism is easily narrowed to ethnic racism; the eternal struggle for purity is really not about foreign threats at all

    3. the tribe that embraces the fake war is elevated above all others as being the only real Americans; we’ve seen this “real American” meme vastly increase in GOP propaganda since 2008

    4. thus the military-industrial complex become permanently allied to Red State congressmen and their rural constituents, who devolve into dependency on a military welfare state since they have the worst schools and most backward views on science and technology

    Does Romney’s parasite 47% include the high-school dropouts in Kentucky resigned to toting rifles in Afghanistan, or the Halliburton contractors they’ll become if they survive that, or the mean, xenophobic and usually Medicare-dependent veterans they’ll become after that? Of course not. They are a new evolution of the American redneck into a petty knighthood. Halliburton or even working as prison guards will pay them many times what they’re worth in peaceful pursuits, so they become big men in their villages, bullies and enforcers for their police departments and churches.

    Isn’t it obvious what this new henchman class and its masters require to bully us into submission? The wars overseas play the same role as the threat of slave rebellion and Indian resistance in the old South. Not just the fabrication of a threat, but the elevation of violent, stupid men onto a pedestal as the only American heroes, better than the rest of us, who are not good enough to deserve the right to vote against their agenda.

    They have no sustainable doctrine except permanent escalation against the rest of the universe. If that leads to the bankruptcy of the country, they will simply be ordered to turn their weapons against us, and we will be the slaves. They are not unhappy contemplating this because they do not measure their well-being by objective measures, but by how high up the pecking order they are.

    • Super, if you haven’t run across it, might I suggest you look into Barbara Tuchman’s “The Proud Tower”? Her subject is documenting the personalities and behaviors of Late Early Industrialization in Europe, a time when the collective incompetences of all of European society clotted up together to really screw up the planet to the extent that Krupp’s steel and the nascent skills of popular manipulation and newspaper-level communication allowed. (Maybe you know her earlier work, like “A Distant Mirror,” about the fun of daily life in the 14th Century and again, the multiple obvious parallels and re-expressions of idiotic but widely-practiced and violently supported human behaviors, then and now.)

      It sure looks to me like there’s a host of parallel pathologies in the works right now, including the militarization and imperialization of everything, the restless drivers of lust for combat in a milieu of extreme disparities of wealth and power, the extra-national behaviors of corporate interests (e.g., arms makers peddling the latest and best to one side, then the other, part of fomenting profitable conflict, and of course the predations of outfits like Monsanto, peddling deadly gene modifications in a wonderful example of vertical integration.)

      In all, a fun read for anyone who has a bit of knowledge and a cynical appreciation for futility in motion.

    • Not to put too fine a point on it, but your read on the evolving social dynamic as it pivots toward the good old feudal days, rings too true.

      In this Brave New GOP vision there would be a wholesale return to castles and moats in the form of gated communities, as wealth transfer from the “parasites” to the worthy wealth creators proceeds apace. The peasants will “earn what the really deserve,” grubbing about in their master’s fields. Especially gifted units will be given scholarships and otherwise co-opted (eg, Alberto Gonzales, to the extend he may have been that gifted).

      Surrounding the castles, however, there is a need for the new class of Compromised Loser you describe, to enforce their new (old) order, and keep their cousins in line. All leveraged by drones, domestic “terrorism” fusion centers, and an industry that has been going gangbusters over the last 10 yrs.

      Its actually hard not to see this scenario shaping-up.

Comments are closed.