Justify My Love

How the Middle East is like Madonna.

The Middle East is like Madonna: Its time at the center of things has come and gone, but it is taking a while for that new reality to sink in.

Mitt Romney may be paying what seems to him and his advisors to be an obligatory pilgrimage to Israel this week. And the Obama team is counterprogramming it with a sandwich strategy that has every White House official above the rank of chef visiting there before and after the Republican candidate's trip. But what we are seeing is a ritual that will seem odd a decade from now, a vestige of the late 20th century that, like an aging pop star or an old general, took a while to fade away.

Once upon a time, the Middle East was important due to the combination of its massive reserves of oil and Cold War competition for geopolitical clout. Then, the Soviet Union collapsed. Almost immediately, the region -- and its oil -- was seen to be in play again, this time caught in a competition between the West and a perceived rising threat from Islamic fundamentalists.

But those days are over, or should be. The truth is, the United States has made the Middle East a priority vastly beyond the importance of its economies, population, or influence. The bottom line is that the U.S. reaction to terrorism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was out of all proportion to the size of the threat involved. We overspent in blood and treasure in the region -- so much so that, Libya aside, the appetite for further costly involvement has dwindled to nearly zero in the United States and among our allies.

More importantly for the United States, the importance of the Middle East's oil is rapidly plummeting. Hosanna! According to a recent Citibank report, by 2020 the United States and Canada will produce 20 million barrels of oil a year and, thanks to advances in efficiency, use only about 17 million making us a net exporter -- something unimaginable just a decade ago. For Americans, the Middle East is shifting from vital wellspring of an essential resource to competitor in the provision of something we need relatively less of to grow.

Advances in energy efficiency are virtually certain to reduce the dependence of the United States and that of many other countries on the region's oil. Discoveries of alternative sources of abundant hydrocarbons like shale gas and oil in the United States, Argentina, Canada, China, Poland, and elsewhere will further reduce our reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Big offshore discoveries of oil in places in like Brazil will do likewise, as will our growing ability to harness other sources of energy from the sun, from wind, from biofuels, from waves, from geothermal sources, and so on.

Middle East leaders have been conducting a decades-long campaign to ensure that just about any other source of energy in the world is preferable to theirs -- because they are so damn hard to deal with. Arab Spring or no Arab Spring, the region is fraught with risks, instability, and corruption. The region's leaders are arrogant, unreasonable, and untrustworthy. They have stolen from and abused their people, repeatedly betrayed their best customers, and even in the case of the ones who have been more reliable allies, they have been very, very costly friends to have.

Even in places like Israel, with which the United States has and should have a special relationship, the big wheel of history is turning. The old reasons for that unique relationship, associated with the Holocaust and the Cold War, are fading as younger generations take a leadership role. Barack Obama's generation entered the workforce at the time Ariel Sharon was directing Israeli troops into the camps in Lebanon, a watershed that for many washed away much of the positive narrative about Israel the virtuous underdog. From then on, through the Intifada and the construction of new settlements on contested land, Israel has systematically damaged its standing in the eyes of the world (which hasn't been hard to do since so many around the world are predisposed for pretty awful reasons to dislike the idea of a Jewish state to begin with). 

We don't need Israel to be our so-called "aircraft carrier" in the Middle East, as we once did. Yes, the region is volatile and the risks of further instability and the threat from Iran are worthy of the deep concern they generate. But given the periodic flare-ups of unreasonable behavior at the top from the Israeli government, the embrace of Israel as an ally carries with it costs -- and the new technologies of modern conflict offer many alternative ways to counterbalance these risks. That's not to say America is better off without Israel as an ally. We are. Just not at any price.

The demographic and political tides in the region are turning against the Israelis in ways that rightfully have them nervous. Absent a deal with the Palestinians in the next several years, their situation is likely to grow more precarious -- and, with the potential rise of Arab democracy, more difficult to defend for a country like the United States whose foreign policy is built (in theory at least) on ideas like the right to self-determination.

Then there's Iran, which, while undoubtedly a problem, is still after all a middleweight country. It is not a global threat, despite all the hysterical assertions of those in whose interest it is to foment deeper confrontation with that country. And the U.S. ability to offset Iran depends at least as much on the Saudis as the Israelis (which, given that the kingdom itself is a regime at risk, could complicate matters considerably).

This last point is especially important. It is not that the Middle East will suddenly be unimportant, safe, or stable. It is just that the problems there have gone on for so long that Americans are increasingly committed to finding ways to be less affected by them. We are also, thanks in part to our own missteps, less able to afford our past stance of deep engagement. Many of our allies are also constrained. So whether the president's name is Barack or Mitt, when the Middle East becomes more complicated, our response is likely to be less decisive, and we are more likely to defer to others in resolving problems.

The Arab Spring comes at a moment when, given the predisposition of new players like the Chinese and the Indians, the historical, moral, or ideological issues important to the United States and its allies are becoming less central. This will likely produce tolerance of another generation of ugly, strongman governments -- and thus even more reason for us to accelerate our disengagement.

Whether the issue is energy or geopolitics, economics or combatting terror, the Middle East is gradually losing relative importance to the United States. It has cost us too much. Investments of our time and attention elsewhere are likely to bear much higher returns on investment. The region no longer even rates as a top-tier security threat -- the residual extremist threats in the world are increasingly located in places like Africa, the subcontinent, or even Southeast Asia.

Mitt Romney may get the bump he seeks from his visit to Israel. Or Barack Obama may trump it with his politically motivated public displays of diplomacy. But even as they do, the landscape is shifting. Indeed, despite the delusions in Washington that the administration or the policy community here are the ones who make the big choices that drive shifts in global affairs, it is clear that this administration's famous "pivot" from the Middle East to Asia was not so much a policy choice but a recognition of shifting priorities, declining influence, and a changing geopolitical reality. In other words, we didn't pivot. History did.

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The Innocents Abroad

The 'tradition' of American presidential challengers demonstrating their foreign-policy chops with a big international trip is no tradition at all.

As Republican challenger Mitt Romney heads off on a foreign trip that seems conspicuously timed to coincide with the anniversary of U.S. President Barack Obama's now famous 2008 Berlin speech, it's easy to forget just how odd it seemed just four years ago for a candidate to fly abroad in the middle of campaign season.

The Washington press corps was incredulous when Obama, then a senator with just two years under his belt announced his trip, which included stops in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, France, and Britain as well as the July 24 speech before a crowd of more than 200,000 in the German capital -- essentially a campaign rally on foreign soil.

"Since when do American candidates, particularly candidates who are not incumbents, actually conduct their campaigns abroad? No one I've talked to can think of a real precedent," wrote the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum at the time. Obama was forced to give up on his original choice of venue, Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided that the site of historic presidential addresses by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan was an "inappropriate" backdrop for a political speech by a candidate.

Obama's opponent Sen. John McCain also went on the offensive, telling CNN that he would prefer to give speeches to audiences in Europe "as president of the United States, rather than as a candidate for the office of presidency" and would instead spend his time "campaigning across the heartland of America and talking about the issues that are challenging America today." Clips of Obama speaking before crowds of admiring Germans would later be prominently featured in the McCain campaign's famous "celebrity" ad.

McCain would himself take a tour of Latin America several weeks later, but the senator's aides stressed that it was intended to highlight his positions on trade and democracy promotion in the region rather than simply burnishing his foreign-policy credentials. McCain had already visited Israel as the presumptive GOP nominee in March 2008.

This time around, the Obama team is certainly using the Republican candidate's trip as an opportunity to attack Romney's foreign policy, but the trip itself no longer seems like such an unusual undertaking. "Overseas trips by candidates have almost become an expected part of the ‘I can be president‘ process," writes Michael Shear of the New York Times. ABC News has headlined a story about the tour, "Mitt Romney Embarks on First Foreign Trip of His Candidacy" as if it the odd thing was that it took him so long.

So has the trip abroad now become -- like the Iowa Straw Poll, the convention speech, and leaks about the running mate -- an expected ritual of presidential campaign season? It appears so. On the face of it, flying off to foreign shores rather than pressing the flesh in Florida and Ohio makes little sense. There are few electoral votes to be had in the streets in Berlin, Warsaw, or Jerusalem; less than 300,000 American expats voted in the last presidential election.

But in 2008, Obama was able to use his trip to turn a perceived disadvantage -- his lack of national security experience -- into an advantage by highlighting the immense global popularity of opposition to George W. Bush's foreign policy. This time around, it is Romney, a relative foreign-policy neophyte, hoping to turn that perception around.

Obama's big Berlin speech aside, using foreign travel to lend gravitas to a presidential campaign isn't actually unprecedented -- though such trips have traditionally made under the official auspices of the candidate's day job. In September 1971, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, who was hoping for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Richard Nixon the following year, traveled to South Vietnam in what was billed as an attempt to find a way to negotiate a peace settlement. McGovern also met with North Vietnamese representatives in Paris on his way there. Not much came out of McGovern's meetings with VIPs, including South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, but the trip gave the senator an opportunity to blast the Nixon administration's handling of Vietnam as a "glaring failure." McGovern went on to win the Democratic nomination the following year in a campaign centered on his opposition to the war but lost to Nixon in a historic landslide.

McGovern's Vietnam gambit -- a brazen attempt to conduct a parallel U.S. foreign policy -- hasn't been repeated. Sen. John Kerry, who based much of his campaign on opposition to George W. Bush's war in Iraq, discussed the possibility of taking a fact-finding trip to Iraq in 2004 but never actually went until after the election.

More commonly, candidates -- particularly governors -- with little foreign-policy experience will take foreign trips before an election begins. Jimmy Carter for instance, made several trips abroad while he was governor of Georgia with an eye on an eventual run for the presidency. In 1992, the international experience of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, "consisted of three trade missions to Japan, Taiwan and other East Asian nations, two to Western Europe and one to the Soviet Union." Obama might have described Bush as "a president who chortled about the fact that he has not left the country before he was president," but in addition to numerous trips to neighboring Mexico, the Texas governor had, in fact, done the requisite passport stamping as he was considering a presidential run in 1998, participating in a Middle East trip with several other governors on which he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli President Ariel Sharon.

(These junkets come with political risks as well. Romney's father George, when running for the GOP nomination in 1968, infamously described his earlier staunch support for the Vietnam War as the result of "brainwashing" he had received from U.S. commanders while visiting the country as governor of Michigan two years earlier.)

But, of course, all these trips -- as well as Obama's own well-publicized visit to his father's homeland of Kenya in 2006, were official visits that conveniently doubled as presidential gravitas builders. Obama's 2008 Europe trip changed the stakes by introducing the notion that the candidate should tour the world solely in the context of the campaign. Obama may have begun his remarks by saying he spoke not "as a candidate for president, but as ... a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world," but by invoking Kennedy and Reagan, it was pretty clear this was not just the junior senator from Illinois talking.

The trip made sense at the time. In 2008, a majority of Americans from both parties believed that world opinion of the United States had declined during the Bush years and also -- for the first time --believed that was a major problem. Candidate typically tour struggling rust belt neighborhoods to highlight unemployment or a national parks to demonstrate his commitment to the environment. Likewise, an adoring crowd in a foreign city was a potent reminder of one of Obama's main 2008 selling points - the fact that, in contrast to Bush, he was widely liked around the world.

The United States may still poll higher around the world today than it did in the closing years of the Bush administration, but the numbers are slipping. And a vast majority of Republicans and 44 percent of independents now say they don't believe other world leaders respect Obama. It makes sense that Romney would use an international trip to some carefully chosen countries to argue that the president has not fulfilled his promise to restore America's standing in the world. The stop in London during the Olympic Games will allow him to highlight his successful stewardship of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics at a time when there's unwelcome attention on other sections of his resume. In Poland, a country the administration has not always been particularly deft in dealing with, Romney will attack Obama's "reset" with the country he considers America's  "No. 1 geopolitical foe." In Israel, Romney can highlight his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- a stark contrast with Obama's fraught ties -- and highlight what many Americans feel is the White House's insufficient support for Israel. It will also remind voters that Obama has not yet visited the country in his first term.

Of course, there are risks as well. Despite some regrettable moments, Obama is still fairly popular in the three countries Romney is visiting. And as always, focusing too much on international affairs - particularly a lower-profile issue like the Russian reset -- during a time of domestic  economic distress carries the risk of making a candidate seem out of touch. Every moment Romney is talking about Israel or Russia is a moment he's not talking about unemployment or the deficit.

Using foreign locales as a backdrop for campaign speeches may be a superficial gesture, but judging by the fact that the Romney campaign felt it necessary to make this trip and that its importance was basically universally accepted, it now seems that American candidates are expected to demonstrate that they are respected abroad as part of their appeal to voters. However the Romney trip turns out, that's encouraging.

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