Mitt Romney’s response to the assaults on U.S. embassies in the Middle East was willfully misleading (accusing the Obama administration of issuing a statement sympathizing “with those who waged the attacks,” which it never did), indisputably ill-timed (trying to score political points off a national tragedy) and quite possibly fatal to his chances of becoming president. If Romney hoped to draw a foreign-policy contrast with Obama, he blew the opportunity.
In many ways, that’s unfortunate. The eruption of anti-American violence in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere has exposed flaws in America’s strategy in the Middle East and in particular the decade-long goal of implanting democracy in the Arab world—an idea that became known during the Bush administration as the Freedom Agenda. The trouble for Romney is that his closest advisers don’t want to distance themselves from that agenda; if anything, they’re prepared to double down on it. And that goes a long way toward explaining why Romney has yet to prove he’s up to the job of commander-in-chief.
In the aftermath of 9/11, a consensus took hold in America’s foreign-policy establishment. Victory in the war on terrorism required not just the liquidation of al-Qaeda but wholesale reform of Islamic societies. Radicalism was merely a symptom of repression. The overriding strategy that guided U.S. policy for half a century—preserving stability and the balance of power in the region—was tossed aside. If the region’s autocratic regimes failed to set their people free, the U.S. wouldn’t hesitate to do it for them.
This thinking led in part to the invasion of Iraq, a war opposed by liberal Democrats like Barack Obama. Yet as president, Obama has bought into the Freedom Agenda as well. With the emergence of the Arab Spring in 2011, Obama shed his realist instincts and embraced the project of democratizing the Middle East. The administration backed the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Yemen’s Ibrahim Saleh and offered covert support to rebels battling Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The idea that the U.S. is better off with democratically elected governments in power than with autocratic ones has become a bipartisan article of faith.
The rage on display on the streets of Cairo and Benghazi and Sana’a, however, tells a different story. There’s simply no evidence that the introduction of democracy will make the Middle East any more stable any time soon. Supporting the aspirations of the Arab people to choose their own leaders is undoubtedly worthy, in and of itself. But it’s folly to believe that doing so will extinguish radicalism or make extremists in the region hate America and its allies any less. Undertaking costly military interventions to depose tyrannical regimes may be morally justified, but they haven’t made America any safer or empowered moderate, pro-Western forces in the region. And as experience has taught us in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, the chaos that regime change unleashes is often beyond our capacity to control.
A Republican candidate advised by wise men such as Brent Scowcroft or Henry Kissinger might have spelled out a soberer, more realistic approach than the one pursued by the last two administrations—one that deemphasized democratization and accepted the limits of the U.S.’s ability to remake the region in its image. It would acknowledge that the Freedom Agenda hasn’t worked—or at least, not nearly as well as we might have hoped.
But Romney’s foreign-policy views have been shaped entirely by the same cohort of neoconservatives who came up with the idea of the Freedom Agenda in the first place. So rather than present a coherent, responsible critique of the administration’s foreign policy, Romney blusters about attacking Iran and intervening in Syria’s civil war, while repeating the transparently bogus charge that Obama is “apologizing” for America and offering sympathy to the enemy.
Such posturing probably plays well on Fox News. But it instills little confidence that Romney has any clue about what the U.S. should do in the Middle East.