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Paul Ryan's Bad Idea for the Middle East

It's not true that Mitt Romney's veep choice is a complete neophyte on foreign policy. But his major foray abroad does not inspire confidence.

The consensus seems to be that Paul Ryan is an unknown quantity when it comes to foreign policy. He's a free trader, sure, and a guy who takes American "exceptionalism" pretty seriously -- he recently called the United States "the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen" -- but does he really have a grand strategy for advancing U.S. global interests? If his sparse record on foreign policy precludes answering that question, the congressman's work promoting free trade in the Middle East -- coupled with a pair of platitude-laden speeches he delivered at the Hamilton Society and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) -- at least gives us a window into his thinking. And by that barometer, Ryan's vision dovetails neatly with the neoconservative policies of George W. Bush.

Ryan's free-trade beliefs are not just an extension of his domestic priorities, but an integral part of what Bush called his "forward strategy of freedom." Following the 9/11 attacks, free trade became a central component of the U.S. strategy in the war on terror. The idea was simple: draw economically and culturally backward countries into the global economy, and their governments will become less autocratic. Freedom, in turn, would allow moderates to triumph. As U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick put it in 2004 upon concluding a preliminary trade deal with the United Arab Emirates, the agreement "complements our strong partnership in our fight against terrorism ... Expansion of trade with the [UAE] is part of our efforts to promote democracy and economic vitality in the Middle East."

The Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) initiative, announced in May 2003, was to be one of the cornerstones of the administration's new anti-terrorism policy -- and Paul Ryan quickly emerged as its most stalwart champion. MEFTA's implementation was supposed to begin with membership in the World Trade Organization and culminate in a series of bilateral free trade agreements between the United States and what Ryan described in his 2009 CFR speech as "20 moderate Muslim countries." (Israel and Cyprus, neither primarily Muslim, fell under MEFTA, as did Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, which can hardly be described as moderate.) But after a few early successes, MEFTA faded from the agenda, hamstrung in linchpin countries like Egypt and the UAE by political and commercial disputes.

Before MEFTA tanked, Ryan, perched on the House Ways and Means committee, helped negotiate free-trade agreements with Bahrain, Morocco, Oman, and Jordan, as well as preliminary trade and investment framework agreements (known as TIFAs) with a dozen other countries in the region. He also formed the bipartisan Congressional Middle East Economic Partnership caucus to press for further free-trade legislation. At the heart of the free-trade push was the desire to influence domestic policy in partner countries -- after all, U.S. trade with the Middle East is minimal and virtually all of it involves oil. But as Ryan explained at CFR in 2009, MEFTA gave the United States leverage to "get these countries to open up and to respect human rights."

Free trade, in Ryan's view, is a "carrot approach" that helps spread American values. "[T]hrough each of these trade agreements we require things like the rule of law, enforceable contracts, women's rights, and advancements towards openness, transparency and democracy," he said.

On this count, Ryan sounds a lot like Mitt Romney, who recently suggested that the Arab uprisings might have been avoided if only Bush's "freedom agenda" hadn't been cut short by the new administration. "President Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner," Romney said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper.

But history has exposed some serious flaws in the Bush administration's worldview. First, Bush himself abandoned the "freedom agenda" when it became clear that democracy might not always be good for American interests -- Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections in the Palestinian territories, and the Iraqi government that the United States expended blood and treasure to support looked to Tehran rather than Washington for guidance.

But more importantly for Ryan, the problem with his free-trade "carrot approach" is that it simply doesn't work. Free trade might have boosted U.S. exports to Bahrain, for example, but it did not prevent King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah from brutally crushing protests in his country during the Arab Spring. Nor has it stopped Saudi Arabia, which has strong, though not free, trade ties with the United States, from beheading suspected sorcerers or quashing political dissent, especially in the Shiite-heavy Eastern Province. Likewise, Singapore and Hong Kong are far from democratic, but perennially top the World Bank's "ease of doing business" ranking.

Promoting free trade, it turns out, reliably leads to more trade. The idea that it improves human rights in the process or makes democracies out of dictatorships is at best inconclusive, and at worst wishful thinking. As political scientists Michael Hiscox and Scott Kastner have pointed out, "While the recent rush to free trade in the developing world has coincided with the spread of democracy in a general way, just which of these phenomena is the cart and which is the horse is not very clear." In other words, we have established only a correlation between free trade and democracy. And assuming there is any, we don't know which way the causality goes.

But it's not just that Ryan's vision is flawed -- after all, he could not have known in 2009 how Bahrain's king would squelch a popular revolt in 2011. The issue is that his ideological commitment to free trade appears to blind him to the possibility that such initiatives might have any unintended consequences, or indeed, that foreign policy almost always has unintended consequences. "I'm suggesting that free trade is pro-human rights," he said when asked whether free trade could contribute to human rights abuses, as it arguably did in Colombia and Peru. "They go hand in hand...economic liberty is a component of human rights."

It is this kind of willful aversion to nuance that characterized George W. Bush's "with-us-or-against-us" approach, and one that tells us a lot about Paul Ryan -- even if his record on foreign policy is remarkably short.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

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