After watching the third and final presidential debate on Monday night, I was disturbed to hear the two candidates talk about foreign policy with such lack of focus or context. Admittedly, Obama was intent on baiting Romney into a game-changing gaffe and Romney was intent on not committing any, such error. Presidential debates, ironically enough, are the last place to hear what a candidate actually thinks about any particular subject.
Both candidates, for example, endorsed the comic notion that the Afghan Army will be able to take over the fight against the Taliban by 2014 as the precursor to an American retreat. Both candidates vowed that Iran will not be allowed to field a nuclear weapon (Romney actually drew the line at “nuclear capability” which is better), but neither one mentioned that the deeper problem with Iran is its current, Islamist government and not their pursuit of nuclear weapons per se. So, for instance, Romney seemed to accept the continuation of the Iranian Regime so long as it did not have nukes.
Reflecting on this event further I am reminded of a post by Walter Russel Mead which is an excellent springboard, summarizing all that is wrong with the current American approach to the Middle East:
The anti-American riots that have been rocking the Muslim world since 9/11 have shaken the establishment out of its complacency. Increasingly, even those who sympathize with the basic elements of the administration’s Middle East policy are connecting the dots. What they are seeing isn’t pretty. It’s not just that the US remains widely disliked and distrusted in the region. It’s not just that the radicals and the jihadis have demonstrated more political sophistication and a greater ability to organize and strike than expected and that the struggle against radical terror looks longer lasting and more dangerous than thought; it’s that the strategic underpinnings of the administration’s Middle East policy seem to be falling apart. A series of crises is sweeping through the region, and the US does not—at least not yet—seem to have a clue what to do.
The Israeli-Palestinian problem, for example, cannot be settled quickly; the consequence of the region’s lack of democratic traditions and liberal institutions cannot be overcome in four or eight years; the underdevelopment and mass unemployment afflicting so many countries has no known cure; the ethnic and sectarian hatreds that poison the region will not soon be tamed; the deep sense of grievance and injustice that shapes the attitudes of so many toward the Christian or post-Christian West will not soon fade away; the radical and terror groups now roaming the region cannot be easily stopped or mollified; the resource curse will continue to corrupt and poison large parts of the region; the resurgence of Islam, even in less radical forms, inevitably heightens a sense of confrontation with the US and its western allies; and Iran’s ambitions are hard to tame and impossible to accept.
Mr. Mead challenged both Obama and Mitt Romney to articulate a policy or at least initiatives that might address these problems. Neither has done so.
At the risk of being what Mr. Mead terms “an armchair strategist” offering simple solutions, I believe that the U.S. needs to fundamentally reconsider its approach to foreign policy and the methods and tools used to pursue that policy.
First, it is not enough, unfortunately, for the United States to be in favor of “democracy” or “freedom” for those around the world. These terms are simply too amorphous and chameleon to be useful in building a coherent foreign policy. Instead, the U.S. should be an ardent advocate for the foundations of civil society: respect for individual rights; free exercise of religion; freedom of speech; respect for the rule of law rather than resort to rioting and violence; the orderly transition of political power free from intimidation. This is a sampling of the bedrock, Anglo-American traditions that are prerequisites for a democratic republic. As Mark Levin argues in his latest book, Ameritopia, you cannot hope to have a real democracy without the foundations of a civil society.
The Middle East is bereft of genuine democracies (with the notable exception of Israel) because it is bereft of the foundational traditions of a civil society. That is why it was unforgivably foolish of George W. Bush to insist on the hasty installation of a “democracy” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither of these societies had the foundations needed for democracy to take root. Yes, Iraq and Afghanistan may have the outer trappings of democracy with parliaments and elections, but form is not substance. Iraq is headed back towards civil war as the ethnic and sectarian factions escalate violence against one another. Afghanistan is a cardboard cut-out of democracy propped up with billions of dollars of U.S. aid and military assistance. Once the props are removed in 2014 (or sooner), the facade will collapse.
So then, it is a tragic and self-defeating mistake for the U.S. to blindly push for elections. In Gaza, for example, such elections mean nothing. They mean less than nothing since they serve to legitimate blood-thirsty ideologues, putting the U.S. in the untenable position of undermining what we previously declared to be a “freely elected” government. No matter that said government throws its political opponents off of rooftops.
Rather, the U.S. must be very specific, unapologetic and insistent about the type of democracy and “freedom” we are talking about– an Anglo-American civil society that can support the pressures of representative government and tolerate religious diversity and dissenting opinions.
Furthermore, the U.S. must take a hard look at the nations as they are and not how we wish them to be. It took hundreds of years for civil traditions to develop in the West. It may take much longer in the Middle East, burdened as it is with Islamic notions of subjugation, subservience and nihilism.
As an example of this, consider this piece by Robert Kagan in The Washington Post. Kagan argues in favor of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt mainly because it was “democratically” elected:
The Obama administration has not been wrong to reach out to the popularly elected government in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood won that election, and no one doubts that it did so fairly. We either support democracy or we don’t. But the administration has not been forthright enough in making clear, publicly as well as privately, what it expects of that government. (Emphasis added)
First, it is not beyond dispute that the Muslim Brotherhood won the election “fairly” when it is essentially the only, organized political party in the country. There is evidence that a sizable number of Egyptians do not support the Muslim Brotherhood but no, unified opposition party could be organized in the relatively short time allowed before the vote. In any event, to say that an Islamist party received the most number of votes in an election does not lead ineluctably to the conclusion that it is a “democracy” that we are obligated to support. In fact, Kagan goes on to point out that the U.S. must make it clear what a “democracy” entails:
Out of fear of making the United States the issue in Egyptian politics, the Obama administration, like past administrations, has been too reticent about stating clearly the expectations that we and the democratic world have for Egyptian democracy: a sound constitution that protects the rights of all individuals, an open press, a free and vital opposition, an independent judiciary and a thriving civil society. President Obama owes it to the Egyptian people to stand up for these principles. Congress needs to support democracy in Egypt by providing aid that ensures it advances those principles and, therefore, U.S. interests.
I would differ with Kagan to the extent that U.S. aid money is provided directly and up front to an Egyptian government that is showing every indication that it intends to implement its Islamist beliefs. Egyptians must see that voting in an Islamist government will have certain and severe consequences. In any event, the United States cannot be in the business of funding our enemies and, regardless of Kagan’s view that the Muslim Brotherhood is not clearly against us, a weak or failing Islamist regime in Egypt is better than one that is buying up the latest weapons systems (e.g., German submarines for example) with U.S. tax dollars. Kagan and those like him are desperate to see a civil society where none exists and, so, are easily taken in by democratic happy talk that Egyptian President Morsi (and other Islamists in the region) are all too adept at feeding to willing dupes.
The second, radical change to U.S. foreign policy must be to view everything in terms of U.S. national interests and the tactics and lines of effort that best advance those interests.
For example, for the better part of four years, the Obama Administration has confused the agenda of the United Nations with that of the United States of America. While it would be hoped that the international body that the U.S. founded at the end of World War II and funds disproportionately would be at least sympathetic to U.S. national interests, this is decidedly not the case. The U.N. has largely been subverted and overrun by authoritarian member states with interests that directly conflict with those of the U.S. In an ideal world, the U.S. would explicitly repudiate the U.N., evict it from its expensive quarters in Manhattan and rent out the space to a new organization made up of democratic U.S. allies. Alas, the best we can hope for is to limit the damage of the U.N. by ignoring it, working around it and forging coalitions of allies to negate the U.N.’s malign influence in the world.
In the Middle East and around the globe, the U.S. needs to re-evaluate its position in the light of our national interest. We must, for example, reconsider our relationship with Saudi Arabia in light of their unrelenting funding of Salafist and Wahhabist ideologies directly hostile to the U.S. and the West in general. We cannot elevate the Saudis to the high status of ally or even “friend” when they are bankrolling our enemies. This need not mean open conflict with them, but it surely must mean a reduction in relations. (The fact that the U.S. is set to soon surpass the Saudis as the world’s largest oil producer should translate into tangible, state leverage).
Syria is another example where the U.S. must evaluate the opportunities and risks for involvement based primarily upon national interest rather than the threat of a “humanitarian crisis” or “instability.” Even a Syria riven by civil war and instability will stalemate Iran’s ability to fund and support Hezbollah and bring greater opportunities for U.S. influence in the region as a whole. The U.S. has been at war with Iran since 1979 and rarely have we had an opportunity to deal the regime in Tehran such a critical blow as exists in Syria.
Throughout the Middle East U.S. policy is plagued by a lack of a driving force. The U.S. intervened in Libya under the pretext of potential civilian casualties but recoils from Syria with actual casualties. The U.S. dithers over supporting former President Mubarak in Egypt while supporting the no-less tyrannical Saudi royal family. The U.S. spends tens of billions of dollars on a corrupt government in Kabul but argues whether to pull funding from Israel if it does not halt new housing settlements or show enough “flexibility” on Arab demands for land. It is high time to clarify who our friends and enemies are and why. Israel is not merely a kindred democracy, for example. They are a vital ally because they directly serve U.S. interests in the region as a bulwark against Islamists. There is, perhaps, no greater return on U.S. investments than Israel given the plethora of hostile, Islamist states in the region. But here again, the U.S. policy is to adopt the hectoring, self-righteous tone of the international community, treating Israel and the Palestinians on equal terms for no good reason.
It is my hope that Mitt Romney wins the election and does so in convincing fashion. The next four years could be pivotal as a showdown with Iran cannot be delayed beyond the next term in office. War is everywhere in the Middle East and the next President will need to have a clear-eyed view of what America’s interests are and how to achieve them. The last 11 years have certainly taught us that “nation building” and “elections” are not effective tools of American power. May President Romney absorb the lessons and chart a better course in 2013.