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.