Mitt Romney gave a foreign policy speech last week that could be boiled down to one argument: Everything wrong with the Middle East today can be traced to a lack of leadership by President Obama. If this speech is any indication of the quality of Romney’s thinking on foreign policy, then we should worry.
It was not sophisticated in describing the complex aspirations of the people of the Middle East. It was not accurate in describing what Obama has done or honest about the prior positions Romney has articulated. And it was not compelling or imaginative in terms of the strategic alternatives it offered.
The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us – and them.
Look at the real trends in the region. In Iraq and Afghanistan, sadly, autocracy has not been replaced with democracy, but with “elective kleptocracy.” Elective kleptocracy is what you get when you replace an autocracy with an elected government before there are accountable institutions and transparency while huge piles of money beckon – in Iraq thanks to oil exports, and in Afghanistan thanks to foreign aid.
Meanwhile, in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, we have seen the collapse of the “Mukhabarat states” – “mukhabarat” is Arabic for internal security services – but not yet the rise of effective democracies, with their own security organs governed by the rule of law. As we saw in Libya, this gap is creating openings for jihadists.
At the same time, the civil war between Sunni Muslims, led by the Saudis, and Shiite Muslims, led by Iran, is blazing as hot as ever, and lies at the heart of the civil war in Syria. In addition, we also have a struggle within Sunni Islam between puritanical Salafists and more traditional Muslim Brotherhood activists. Then there is the struggle between all of these Islamist parties – which argue that “Islam is the answer” for development – and the more secular mainstream forces, which may constitute the majority in most Mideast societies but are disorganized and divided.
How does the U.S. have an impact on a region with so many crosscutting conflicts and agendas? We start by making clear that the new Arab governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those that agree the countries that thrive today: educate their people up to the most modern standards; empower their women; embrace religious pluralism; have multiple parties, regular elections and a free press; maintain their treaty commitments; and control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law.
We cannot let the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the new government in Libya come to us and say: “We need money, but right now our politics is not right for us to do certain things. Give us a pass.” We bought that line for 50 years from their dictators. It didn’t end well. We need to stick to our principles.
The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when change starts with them, not us. Only then is it self-sustaining, and only then can our help truly amplify it.