Mitt Romney's Terrible Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

It's official: The Republican nominee has no new ideas for the Middle East.

First, full disclosure. I'm not associated with either the Barack Obama or the Mitt Romney campaign in any way. Over the years, I've worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations and voted for candidates from both parties. On foreign and domestic policy, I've come to believe that the appropriate dividing line for Americans should not be between Democrat and Republican, left and right, liberal and conservative, but between dumb and smart. And we ought to be on the smart side.

That's why I was stunned to read Mitt Romney's op-ed in Sunday's Wall Street Journal, which ran under the headline, "A New Course for the Middle East." Even by the standards of political silly season and in the heat of battle weeks before an election -- when exaggeration, obfuscation, and willful distortion become the orders of the day -- this article sets a new bar for its vacuity, aimlessness and lack of coherence. There's nothing "new" in it, and it provides no "course for the Middle East." If anything, it takes us back to the kind of muscular nonsense and sloganeering that has wreaked havoc on our credibility in recent years. Here's why:

1. Obama's Middle East mistakes

Obama's record in this still angry, broken, and dysfunctional region is far from perfect. But the latest security failure in Libya reflects badly on a record that has been pretty competent on such matters. Convinced he could transform the Middle East partly with his own persona and partly with the goodwill engendered by the fact that he wasn't George W. Bush, Obama raised expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on diplomacy and engagement with Iran, Syria that he could never deliver. This wasn't about the lack of American leadership. None of these problems were amenable to rapid transformation from Day One. American power was limited by the inherently conflicting agendas of regional actors, whose interests were not our own, and whom we could not control or co-opt. In raising hopes, President Obama diminished U.S. credibility, but to criticize him for failing to stop Iran's nuclear program or for not delivering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is ridiculous. Not even a negotiating team of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad could have done that.

2.  Obama's successes

Obama accomplished three critically important things in this region for which Romney will not (but should) give him credit. First, he became a more focused and more disciplined version of Bush 43 when it came to counterterrorism policy: He killed Osama bin Laden, pulverized al Qaeda, and has so far prevented another attack on the continental United States. Protecting the homeland is the organizing principle of a nation's foreign policy. If you can't do that, you really don't need a foreign policy. Second, Obama committed himself to (and is succeeding in) extricating America from the two longest wars in our history -- wars that were among our most pointless, given what we sacrificed and what we've gotten in return. Third, he kept us out of new ones. (See Syria, Iran.) It is important to think through what your objectives are before you act and, in particular, how the application of American military power, whether alone or with others, would achieve those goals or make them worse. So far, in Syria and Iran, Obama has made the right call by not pursuing military half measures that might not work, could make the situation worse or create a slippery slope to greater U.S. involvement.

3.  Israel

Romney has part of this right. Obama wrestled with Benjamin Netanyahu on the wrong issue -- settlements -- with no strategy or sense for how to use this tactic to achieve the ultimate goal: an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And there's no doubt that on an emotional level, even though Bibi is hardly an easy guy to get along with, Barack Obama isn't Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to bonding with Israel. And frankly, this is a serious problem. But to imply that Obama is willfully dismissing or trivializing Israeli concerns on Iran, let alone throwing Israel under the bus, just doesn't wash. With the exception of Britain, the United States probably has a closer relationship with Israel than any other nation. Even so, our interests -- given that there are two of us -- can't always align perfectly. And we need to deal honestly with one another when they don't. Should Romney become president, the personal relationship between Netanyahu and the president would improve. But who's to say that Romney's instincts to ignore the Palestinian issue or give Israel greater leeway on striking Iran's nuclear sites are the best policies for Israel? Indeed, the governor is hardly Israel's salvation. Dollars to donuts, I'd bet that within a reasonable period of time, Netanyahu would also find a way to annoy Romney and vice versa.

4.  U.S. leadership

I hope Romney doesn't believe his own rhetoric and that his op-ed is only campaign bluster.  Because if it's real, we should be worried. I didn't much care for Obama's high-minded, idealized speeches early on about transforming the Middle East -- and I don't care much for Romney's fancy words either. We're stuck in a Middle East we can't fix or leave. And that requires a pretty cruel and unforgiving look at reality, not a bunch of slogans that imply we can do what we want or get others there to do it for us. The past twenty years of failed American policy on peacemaking and war making in this region -- under Bill Clinton,  George W. Bush and Barack Obama-- reveal the costs of failure and what it's done for our image abroad.

This has nothing to do with being a "declinist" or not believing in American "exceptionalism."  We are exceptional, but part of that uniqueness lies in understanding that the wisest policies are those that find the balance between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Great powers get themselves into heaps of trouble when they commit transgressions of omniscience and omnipotence by thinking they know everything and can do everything, too. Romney's op-ed is chock-full of both -- and that's not being on the smart side.

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Reality Check

Stop Blaming Bibi

Sorry, folks: Benjamin Netanyahu is not the reason there is no Middle East peace.

It's been a bad month for Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister has been hammered for being trigger-happy on Iran, he won't see his good friend Barack Obama at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, and he's being blasted for intervening in American politics.

It's not the first time that the world has united in blaming Bibi for the Middle East's ills. As FP's own Josh Rogin reported, this time last year former President Bill Clinton was holding forth on why we don't have a peace process, and his view boils down to this: There's this guy Netanyahu -- he's a jerk and is unwilling to accept the terms I offered at Camp David as the basis for a settlement with the Palestinians. In a stunning assertion, Clinton said: "[Palestinian leaders] have explicitly said on more than one occasion that if [Netanyahu] put up the deal that was offered to them before -- my deal -- that they would take it."

I really like Bill Clinton. I used to work for the guy. But let's be clear. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a much better deal than Clinton offered Yasir Arafat. The Palestinians didn't accept it.

I'm aware of all the reasons many rational and right-thinking people want to pin the rap for the current impasse with the Palestinians and the bad U.S.-Israeli relationship on Bibi. And the Israeli prime minister certainly deserves a large share of the blame.

Bibi is no pushover. We dealt with him during the Clinton years and -- to use a Bush 41 phrase -- he was a tough trader. My views on what Israel should or shouldn't do on the Palestinian issue are different than his.

Still, I like Bibi all the same. He's a smart guy in a tough spot, and though he unceasingly seems to make his own situation worse, he doesn't have many easy choices. These days, no Israeli leader does.

Then there's the inconvenient fact that Netanyahu is (once again) the duly elected prime minister of Israel. Given Israel's peculiar parliamentary system, there's a reason why only he was in a position to put together a workable coalition. This fact generates a certain legitimacy of its own, which American leaders are obliged to respect.

Still, is Clinton right?  Is Bibi the key reason we aren't on the verge of a conflict-ending accord between Israel and the Palestinians?

There's no denying that Netanyahu is more intransigent on some key questions than other Israeli politicians. Bibi is expanding settlements in the West Bank, won't share Jerusalem, and is adamantly against any compromise on the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. If Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz, or Ehud Olmert were in charge and had a supportive coalition, the situation would clearly improve.

But what are the current chances of reaching a conflict-ending agreement under those guys, or for that matter any Israeli prime minister? As the late Yitzhak Rabin, himself a two-time Israeli prime minister, used to say when faced with a scenario he thought unrealistic, "You can forget about it." The peace process is temporarily closed for the season, and not just because of Netanyahu. What follows isn't a brief for Bibi -- it's a brief for reality.


The peace process has always required two hands -- sometimes three -- clapping. And while there is a Palestinian partner (maybe even two with Fatah and Hamas), like the Israelis, the Palestinians are a very complex lot.

The Palestinian national movement today is in profound crisis. As I've written before, it's like Noah's Ark -- there are two of everything: prime ministers, security services, constitutions, foreign patrons, geographic polities, and visions of where and what Palestine is. And these divisions aren't going away. If anything, they're hardening.

Want to blame Palestinian dysfunction on the Israeli occupation? Go ahead, if it makes you feel better. But it won't change the harsh reality that without Palestinian unity that produces one authority and one negotiating position, there won't be a serious dialogue, let alone a Palestinian state.

And Palestinians themselves have to face the inconvenient truth that a state's viability lies in its capacity to maintain a monopoly over violence in its own society. Without it, frankly, no state can maintain the respect of its neighbors or its own citizens. Are we going to blaming Fatah' s dysfunction and Hamas's viability on Bibi too?


If I hear one more time that we're "this close" to an agreement, I'm going to toss my lunch. Even if we were, it's the political will that's missing -- not the clever diplomatic formulae. And we're not even close in any case. On Jerusalem, refugees, security, and even the borders of the prospective Palestinian state, there are wide differences between Israel and the Palestinians -- and within the Israeli and Palestinian camps, too. This silly notion that everyone knows generally what the solution will be -- and that therefore getting there should be easy -- only trivializes how hard it's going to be to reach a conflict-ending accord. Details matter.

The Arabs

I can only chuckle now when I recall those who made the argument that the so-called Arab Spring would make it easier to deal with Arab-Israeli peace. Some said that now that the Arabs were democratizing, Israel would want to reach out. Others used the reverse argument: Now that Arab populism had gotten rid of the acquiescent, pro-American autocrats, Israel would have no choice but to settle up before the Palestinian problem radicalized the whole region.

Forget the demonizing or the idealizing. What the Arab Spring wrought above all was uncertainty, and a new populism that brought with it anti-Israel and anti-American tropes. Instead of making Israel more willing to deal -- or so fearful that it had no choice but to settle -- changes in the Arab world produced neither sufficient incentives nor disincentives to compel a shift in the status quo. Instead of bold moves, the watch word was risk-aversion, not risk readiness.


You heard it here first. There will be no Israeli-Palestinian deal until there's much more clarity on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. Regardless of whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is America's next president, Iran will be the dominant issue over the next year. These are the issues that strategists across the globe will be occupied with: Will there be a military strike by Israel or the United States? Can high-level U.S.-Iranian diplomacy put together a grand bargain? Or will we see more of the same -- the continuation of sanctions and the perpetuation of a cold war between Iran and the West?

In any event, there will be very little room or incentive for serious moves toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, particularly on the Israeli side. Indeed, Israel has so teed up the urgency of dealing with Iran in 2012 that it's almost unimaginable 2013 won't bring some decision point. If it's military action, the chances of any peace process in the face of the subsequent regional turmoil would be slim. Indeed, in many respects, there's no greater drag on the peace process right now than the focus on Iran's nuclear program.

Face the Facts

Netanyahu not only shapes Middle East politics, he is also a product of his political surroundings. To regard him -- and much of the country he leads -- as solipsistic entities that exist in a vacuum independent of other factors, some of which are beyond Israel's control, is ridiculous.

The Palestinian house is a mess not just because of Israel -- the differences between Hamas and Fatah are real and durable. Neither Barak nor Olmert could reach an agreement, either. As for the Israeli people, it's not unreasonable to assume their current conservative attitude and interest in peace is shaped by their own assessment of how their neighbors are behaving. And that's not an altogether rosy picture, to say the least.

We can choose to pretend that the main obstacle standing in the way of Israeli-Palestinian peace is Bibi. That explanation suits our need to personalize problems, find easily digestible answers, and turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a morality play that pits the forces of right against wrong. But it's also fundamentally incorrect: Netanyahu may not be the Israeli leader capable of leading his country to a conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians, but he's not the single most important or only reason we don't have one.

I'm actually surprised that a guy as smart as Clinton -- who knows the world's a complex place -- feels that way. But then again, maybe not. At Camp David in July 2000, Clinton blamed Arafat for not accepting his peace plan. Now, he's blaming Netanyahu and the Israeli public for the same thing. Clinton is right to be concerned that there's no serious peace process. But let's at least be honest about why we don't have one.

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