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Can America Control the Arab Spring?

Obama and Romney understand America's investment in the world differently.

Oh, Rod:

To be clear, it’s damned difficult to know what the right thing to do in the Middle East is.  The discussion I would like to see is not Romney-Obama tit-for-political-tat, but a clear, logical comparison of the two candidates’ strategic visions for the Middle East in the Arab Spring/Islamist era. I would like to see some leadership.

I would also like a pony.

If both candidates believed that it was in their interest to present such a comparison, that is what they would do. Clearly, the Romney campaign at least does not believe that presenting such a comparison is in their interests. That fact alone should be relevant to anyone’s vote, and that’s the actual relevance of the “horserace” coverage.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t try to oblige.

I am not sure that either of them have what one would call a “strategic vision” in the sense that Rod means it – something akin to Bush’s “freedom agenda” – and I’m not sure that an overarching strategic vision is precisely what is wanted. But if I had to estimate their core differences, here is how I would do it.

President Obama and Mitt Romney both assume that America is invested in events around the world, and in the Middle East in particular. But they understand that investment differently.

President Obama understands America’s centrality as an inescapable fact that, while valuable, imposes on America unique burdens. Sometimes those burdens are burdens of action, and sometimes they are burdens of restraint. President Obama is not really interested in reducing that burden – as, say, a Rand Paul would be. But he’s interested in managing it well, and maintaining American centrality (hegemony, if you prefer) by means of good management.

What does that mean for the Arab Spring/Islamist Awakening? Not any one thing, as should be clear from Obama’s record so far, which includes declining to get involved in the Tunisian revolution, trying to ease Mubarak out of office without abandoning the Egyptian military, isolating but refusing to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and actively intervening on the side of the rebels in Libya. That pattern, to me, suggests a man trying to get on the “right side” of events more than trying to dictate them. That’s not intended to be a criticism – it’s a description. King Canute was not particularly wise to try to dictate to the ocean rather than getting on the right side of the tide.

I believe Obama views the so-called Arab Spring as driven by the internal currents of the Arab world, and not something America can control. Given America’s inescapable centrality, however, those currents can’t simply be ignored, which means we have to surf those unpredictable waves as best one can, so as to keep our own interests afloat. Inevitable, sometimes we’re going to get wet doing so.

Obama clearly knows that Muslim terrorist groups exist that have declared themselves America’s mortal enemies. That’s why he keeps ordering the assassination of their leaders. But I don’t think he believes it is meaningful to say that “Islamism” – if political Islam can be described as having a coherent ideology – is America’s enemy, but rather a fact, with potentially negative consequences for America to be managed and countered.

Mitt Romney, by contrast, understands America’s centrality as a given that provides America with unique opportunities – particularly, to pursue a foreign policy without tradeoffs. He seems to think that he can dictate terms to the rest of the world, allies and enemies alike, and that because of our preponderance of power they will simply have to accept the terms. Or, alternatively, he believes that there are no costs to dictating terms that then are rejected. This latter possibility, by the way, is largely correct in the business world with which Romney is most familiar, where when you lose a deal you just move on to the next deal. Management consultants, unlike nations, do not have permanent interests.

Some have argued that Romney is a closet realist. I don’t see any evidence for this, and it doesn’t follow from the supposition that he isn’t a true believing crusader that in consequence he’s secretly the opposite. He could secretly be nothing in particular at all.

I do not see any strong evidence that Mitt Romney (unlike his running mate) really believes in the so-called “freedom agenda.” But he does seem to buy into the frame whereby “Islamism” is a thing, that can be fought and defeated, and that we should be fighting it – whether with bombs or press conferences or both is never very clear. I don’t know to what degree this reflects foreign policy ignorance – simple ideological constructs feel like knowledge to the ignorant – and to what degree it simply reflects his understanding of what his party’s base wants him to believe.

Neither candidate stands for a policy of strategic withdrawal, of reducing American exposure to conflict in the Middle East or elsewhere, and there is no major figure in either party – including Ron Paul – who has even articulated what such a policy would look like, and how such a transition would be managed. (Paul takes a principled non-interventionist stance, which is not at all the same thing as explaining how we get from the foreign policy we have to the foreign policy he would prefer in the safest, least-costly fashion to ourselves and our allies.) If you want to vote for such a candidate, rather than for the better of two alternatives both of whose overall policy frameworks you reject, you don’t really have an option in this election. If you want to vote for a principled opponent of the current foreign policy framework, even if that opponent doesn’t have an articulate vision of managing the transition, you have a couple of options out there on the fringes, the most viable of which (not very) is Gary Johnson.



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