Handle With Care

Can Mitt Romney be trusted with the Middle East?

In a testy exchange with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, James Baker, then the U.S. secretary of state, set a standard in fantasy counterfactuals that I was sure could never be topped.

Responding to Assad, who wanted the United States to force Israel off the Golan Heights, Baker bluntly responded, "Yeah, and if a frog could fly, it wouldn't drag its balls on the ground."

I was wrong. Last week's assertion by a Mitt Romney advisor that, had his guy been president, the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi might not have taken place takes fantastical thinking to new levels.

After all, Baker was just kidding. Romney's guy may actually have been serious.

What's going on here? Is the Romney claim willful delusion -- just plain old campaign bluster -- or is there a serious point hiding behind the politics and the hyperbole?

Counterfactuals are fascinating exercises. What would have happened to the United States during the Great Depression and World War II if on that night in Miami in February 1933, one month before he was to be inaugurated, a mentally ill Italian bricklayer had succeeded in his attempt to assassinate FDR? The world will never know -- but that won't stop anyone from speculating.

But in this case, the assertions of Romney's foreign policy prowess are a useful point of departure to offer up a few observations on the governor and his putative approach to the Middle East.

Before we start, some disclosure is in order. This really isn't a partisan political analysis. I worked and voted for Republicans and Democrats and am not attached, affiliated, or all that enamored by either campaign.

In fact I've come to identify the key dividing line for success in American political life as one not between left or right, Democratic or Republican, or liberal or conservative -- but between dumb and smart. And I want to be on the smart side.

So what are we to make of Romney's "I can protect America in the Middle East better than you can" claims?

First, without engaging in any gratuitous Romney bashing, I think it's pretty evident to any objective observer that he hasn't turned in a terribly strong performance to date on the foreign-policy front. He's had more than his allowed quota of gaffes. By criticizing the Brits as Olympic hosts in the midst of one of the happier times in their national life since they lost their Empire and offending the Palestinians by praising Israeli culture, Romney demonstrated a propensity for wandering off the highway into irrelevancies and self-inflicted wounds.

The governor's own views on critical issues -- such as the "red line" for an American  strike against Iran's nuclear sites --  have also been confusing and ambiguous. As recently as last week, Romney was still offering contradictory assessments of the threshold for military action: Was it Iran's acquiring the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, or producing the weapon itself?

Then of course there was the ill-timed, ill-advised blast at President Barack Obama's alleged weakness and fecklessness in responding to the attack on the Cairo embassy -- a statement that proved to be somewhat premature, and sent a signal that the governor had been too eager to jump on Obama and to politicize a foreign policy issue at the wrong time.

None of this, of course, is fatal. Candidates have been exaggerating and sticking their feet in their mouths since the early days of the republic. And with a little spit, polish, and a few good talking points and briefings, these candidates  -- red, blue, purple -- have done quite well as president on the foreign-policy front.

But Romney and his advisers ought to show a little humility. They (and he) haven't turned in an Oscar-winning performance so far, nor one that generates much confidence about how Romney would perform in his counterfactual presidency. What's more, the idea that President Romney could have prevented the current tide of attacks and protests against U.S. diplomatic missions is either excessive narcissism, willful self delusion, or just plain ignorance.

What has been loosed in the Middle East cannot be laid solely at Obama's feet. It is a perfect storm of sorts -- the confluence of profound anti-American sentiment that has built for years under Republican and Democratic administrations alike and has now been catalyzed by the Arab Spring, which has allowed public opinion to play a greater role in how events unfold across the region. Islamists eager to assert themselves against the West are using offenses against Islam to mobilize public opinion, and new governments (some Islamist) are much more hesitant to use force to control their own people and may actually see advantage in playing to the crowds.

To imagine that a Romney presidency -- with its muscular rhetoric and focus on an "America, right or wrong" ethos -- could have preempted these broad forces strains the bounds of credulity. Here's a counterfactual for you: Romney's holier-than-thou attitude could have easily made the situation worse.

That's not to say there aren't legitimate critiques of how Obama has handled the Middle East. Instead of going after the president with a two-by-four, the Romney campaign could have legitimately drilled down with more scalpel-like precision.

Should the administration have been clearer and tougher with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy when he was elected? Should they have made it unmistakable that he shouldn't confuse U.S. acceptance of his legitimate electoral victory with its staunch opposition to any Egyptian government effort to acquiesce in or promote anti-American views? Was the administration vigilant enough when it came to assessing the threat to its diplomats, particularly in a place like Libya, which has become the Arab Wild West since Qaddafi's fall?

But hindsight is always 20/20, and there's absolutely no indication that Romney -- given his gaffes, exaggerations, and muddled messaging so far -- would have been anymore sure-footed in the face of the momentous changes in the Arab world than Obama has been. Actually, after an initial period of wishful thinking (and acting) Obama seems to have emerged as a pretty competent steward of America's foreign policy.

Listening to Romney's boosters, you'd think that on the two core foreign-policy issues that had intruded on the campaign before the current outbreak of violence -- Israel and the Iranian nuclear issue -- a Romney presidency would have ushered in nothing short of a era of brilliant successes, tough action, and deft diplomacy.

I put these counterfactuals in the illusion category: There's no doubt that had Romney been president over the past four years, the U.S.-Israeli relationship, at a personal level, would have been much improved. (Though the governor's assertion that Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus" is one of the most ridiculous statements I've heard on the subject in a long time.) Romney is more in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush "we love Israel" category than in the Obama "it's important that we have daylight between us" box.

Much of the improvement, however, would have resulted from Romney not dealing with the peace process or Israeli settlements at all. While I think Obama muffed both of these issues, Romney would probably have ignored them -- hardly a boon for American interests. The governor's latest gaffe, which seems to betray at best a nonchalance about the importance of Middle East peace and at worst a hostility toward Palestinians, won't do much to inspire faith in his competence either.

Finally, as hard as I try, I cannot identify the significant differences between Mitt Romney's Iran policy and Obama's approach. I'm not at all sure the governor can see them either. He seems a bit confused about whether he would urge force to preempt Iran from acquiring a capacity to produce a nuke, or only once it has a weapon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws little distinction here -- so perhaps Romney might be more inclined to give Bibi a green light to use force. Though I wonder if Romney were in Obama's shoes now -- 50 days before an election -- whether he too wouldn't be the "not now" president, in large part because of the uncertainties an Israeli attack would introduce.

Like all counterfactuals, this one ends with several questions we can't answer with any certainty. Would Mitt Romney be a better foreign policy president than Barack Obama? And WWMRD in the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East in which America is stuck?

I don't really know. But given his track record so far, I'm not in all that big a hurry to find out.

J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

Reality Check

When Bibi Didn't Meet Barack

Why the American president and the Israeli prime minister just can't get along.

I understand that Israel is in a tough spot on the Iranian nuclear issue. I live in Chevy Chase and don't have to worry about Iranian nukes falling on my neighborhood. I don't want to trivialize Israel's fears.

And from Netanyahu's perspective, those fears are in the process of being realized. Negotiations, at least in the short term, won't stop Iran from continuing its quest for a nuclear bomb. The fact is that apart from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, four states have nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. All are profoundly insecure, and some harbor visions of themselves as great powers. Iran, of course, is the poster child for both insecurity and grandiosity. In fact, had the shah not been overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran would have already been a nuclear weapons state.

And on top of all this, Netanyahu believes he's not getting the kind of support and understanding from his "good friend" President Barack Obama that he feels Israel needs. The clock is ticking, the centrifuges are spinning, Israel's window of advantage for a military strike is closing, and Iran's "zone of immunity" is nearing.

So what's a guy to do?

Thus far, Bibi's response has been to lash out. Netanyahu criticized the United States on Sept. 11, of all days, for failing to lay down "red lines" on Iran's nuclear program that, if crossed, would prompt U.S. military action. He was presumably responding to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that the United States was "not setting deadlines" for a military response to Iran. "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," Bibi warned. The rise in tensions -- which were made only worse by reports, later denied, that the White House had turned down Netanyahu's request for a meeting with the president -- prompted an hour-long conversation between Obama and Netanyahu that same night, as the two leaders tried to get back on the same page on Iran.

Netanyahu's broadside -- whatever its intent -- has produced three reactions. And none of them help Israel or the United States.

First, this entire exchange has brought an issue that should have remained behind closed doors into public view. Asked to comment on red lines, Clinton should have simply said that the United States and Israel were discussing these matters privately. The United States is not prepared to strike Iran anytime soon. And frankly, neither is Israel -- not before the U.S. elections on Nov. 7 nor likely by year's end.

Every Israeli red line seems to have turned pink, anyway. Every few months, the media is full of anonymous Israeli sources warning portentously about an imminent strike -- and so far, they have all proved to be false alarms. The more it threatens military action and doesn't produce, the less street cred Israel has in a region where it wants to be feared and respected. If the United States and Israel want to talk red lines, do it in private -- that's where they become real and serious.

Second, it makes no sense to air U.S.-Israeli differences publicly. It sends a signal to America's friends and enemies alike that the relationship is weak and dysfunctional. And the message it sends to Iran is particularly counterproductive: Don't worry.

Third, Netanyahu's remarks could be construed as an effort to intervene in American politics. Let's be clear: Israel and the United States have been intervening in one another's politics for years. And while I don't think the Israeli prime minister had that motivation this time, the timing of these remarks -- 50-odd days (and they will be odd) before the big dance -- will be seen by some as a transparent effort to embarrass and corner Obama, or to actually sway the views of American Jews. Obama bears his fair share of responsibility for screwing up the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but this perceived intervention by Bibi could do major damage. The last thing Israel needs is an angry second-term president who believes his Israeli counterpart played an active role in trying to defeat him. It's unseemly and counterproductive.

The Iranian nuclear issue is complicated enough without two close allies bickering in public about what to do about it. I must say -- having watched American presidents and Israeli premiers since Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin -- that this has to be the most dysfunctional pair I've seen. Since both leaders may well be around for some time to come, let's hope they can find a better way to cooperate. The risks to American and Israeli interests will be too great if they don't.

Abir Sultan - Pool /Getty Images