We heard a great deal about Israel in last night’s debate. Obama repeated several times that Israel is “a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.” Romney tried to outdo him, promising that he’d prosecute Iran’s Prime Minister for threatening to “wipe Israel off the map”. As President, Romney claimed,

 I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world. The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

The promise to indict Ahmadinejad is mere posturing: the President doesn’t have the authority to indict anyone for anything. The reference to South Africa, on the other hand, is more interesting because it exposes Romney’s ignorance of the morally ambiguous realities of foreign affairs.

In the first place, Romney seems unaware that “we” did not treat South Africa as a pariah until quite late in the game. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration regarded the apartheid regime as a key ally against the spread of Communism. That strategy became  untenable in the 1980s. Even so, President Reagan and prominent Republicans in Congress including Dick Cheney consistently resisted efforts to recognize the ANC, which they regarded (with some justice) as a terrorist organization. In Romney’s view of history, the forces of good are always clearly aligned against the “bad guys”. It just isn’t so.

Much the same is true of Israel. Although Israel publicly opposed apartheid, the 1975 Israel-South Africa Agreement established close military links in response to both countries’ international isolation. On some accounts, that included nuclear cooperation. According to Romney, Iran can’t be trusted with a nuclear weapon because of the fundamental injustice of its government. But Israel may have helped his paradigm of a pariah state acquire the same weapons.

And what about Israel itself? Romney implicitly condemns apartheid as an intolerable violation of human rights. According to a survey released today, however, 58 percent of Israel’s own citizens believe that it practices apartheid policies. What’s more, many Israelis are quite satisfied with that state of affairs. The ultra-Orthodox, in particular, express overwhelming approval for denying votes, jobs, and even public roads to Arabs both within Israel proper and in the territories.

My point here is not that Israel is identical to South Africa. Bad as things are there, especially in the territories, there’s room for improvement within the existing political and legal system. That was not the case under apartheid.

But, as his secretly-recorded remarks indicates, Romney is unable to imagine how that improvement might occur. That’s because he imposes a largely simplistic script onto the messy, wrenching events and circumstances that constitute international affairs. We just had a president who saw the world with what he was pleased to regard as similar clarity. We will be lucky to avoid another.