The Obama-Romney Plan for Middle East Peace

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Illustration by Bloomberg View

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Illustration by Bloomberg View

What to make of the dueling speeches on the Middle East by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney?

If you fused them together in a magical, alternate speechwriting universe, you might have the makings of a viable foreign policy for the tortured region.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly, Obama faced a tough task: Reaching two audiences -- voters in the U.S. and Muslims in the Middle East -- who rarely listen, much less regularly speak, to each other.

At least as far as Americans are concerned, he said many of the right words, honoring the life of slain Ambassador Chris Stevens while pledging to hunt down his killers, defending the principle of free speech while affirming religious tolerance, rejecting extremism and violence while proffering the hand of friendship to those who do the same. If Obama did not win many votes -- fewer than 5 percent of voters choose candidates for their foreign policy positions -- he probably did not lose many, either.

Listeners in the Middle East could be forgiven for thinking they had heard some of the speech before. Three years after Obama’s soaring words in Cairo, however, Arabs’ expectations about his administration have come down to earth. Indeed, according to one summer 2011 poll of Arab attitudes, 85 percent of respondents said “it doesn’t matter who the U.S. president is, nothing gets better or changes.”

Disgusting Video

The president was right to distance the U.S. government from a “crude and disgusting” video that deserved condemnation. Yet that video probably wasn’t the reason Ambassador Stevens died -- as Obama himself said, evidence is growing that the attack was planned and his death “wasn’t just a mob action.”

Strangely, Obama didn’t talk about the U.S. policy that has the highest likelihood of tamping extremism in the Muslim world: supporting economic growth. That was left to Romney, who has taken a few hits for his lack of foreign policy experience. In his remarks to the Clinton Global Initiative, the former Massachusetts governor identified jobs and the economy as core areas for the U.S. to focus on in its efforts to help and reshape the Middle East after the Arab Spring.

This is not to say that his proposals were perfect. Romney suggested exchanging increased U.S. trade access to Egypt’s markets for help in building up the country’s small-business sector. We’re all for freer trade, but that’s an unlikely path on several levels.

Trade barriers are rarely lowered in exchange for intangibles such as help in economic sectors. And U.S. expertise of the kind needed to deliver the microeconomic boost Romney talks about is limited. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, for example, has been struggling to find partners it can work with in assisting private-sector growth in North Africa.

What Egypt needs most is to stabilize its macroeconomy, which has been badly damaged by a year and a half of political unrest. That means securing the $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan that Egypt has been negotiating, getting the $1 billion in debt reduction that the U.S. has offered, and enacting reforms to make foreign investors believe the country is a safe place to put their money.

Given Romney’s focus on the economy, his decision to start out his proposals by describing the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt as a problem -- right up there with the deaths of thousands of Syrians -- was odd. The Muslim Brothers might be difficult political partners, but since many are small-business owners, they are probably the group most likely to spark an entrepreneurial renaissance. Because they’ve had to build private sector livelihoods around the military- dominated state sector for decades, they have a natural interest in creating more market-friendly laws.

No matter which man wins, U.S. policy over the next four years will need to focus on the interconnected goals of democratic tolerance and economic liberty. If it’s Romney, he will learn -- as Obama has learned over the past three years -- that reform in the Middle East brings unexpected bedfellows.

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