Unrest in Middle East: What would President Romney do?

The attacks against US diplomatic outposts in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East have sharpened focus on President Obama's policies – and what Mitt Romney's would be.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at Van Dyck Park in Fairfax, Va., Thursday.

What kind of diplomacy would President Romney conduct? That’s a question the D.C. punditocracy is debating in the wake of GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s criticism of the way President Obama has handled attacks on US embassies in the Middle East.

Leaving aside the argument over the accuracy of Mr. Romney’s criticism and the propriety of its timing, his basic charge is that the current administration has been weak and passive in response to recent events. That’s a theme that’s run through all his statements on foreign policy. Romney insists that in the White House he’d speak up more forcefully for US interests around the world, and that the world would respond differently as a result.

Mr. Obama, in this view, is Jimmy Carter redux, a president who has ceded America’s primary role in global events to other nations. Romney says he’d take that back.

“The world needs American leadership. The Middle East ... needs American leadership, and I intend to be a president that provides the leadership that America respects and will keep us admired throughout the world,” Romney said Thursday in a campaign appearance in Fairfax, Va.

Of course, it’s easy to say sweeping stuff like that. But specifically, what does this mean?

If there’s one foreign issue Romney has talked of most, it’s probably China. He’s long criticized China as a country that steals American technology and unfairly steals American jobs by manipulating its currency, ensuring that its goods remain cheap in the US.

As it happens, the Romney campaign just released an ad on China and manufacturing jobs, charging that Obama hasn’t stood up to Beijing’s “cheating.”

Romney has long said he’d label China a currency manipulator on Day 1 of his presidency. But beyond that, it’s unclear what he’d do. Like George Bush before him, Obama has declined to label China a currency cheat in the Treasury Department’s semiannual report on international exchange-rate policies. Doing so would only anger China without changing anything, they say.

As to the Middle East, this week’s flap has led to Romney advisers providing a bit more detail about his prospective foreign policy. In interviews with The New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets, they’ve said he would:

  • Tell Iran it can’t have nuclear weapons, and set a “red line” for nuclear technology development beyond which Tehran can’t go without risking unspecified consequences.
  • Tell Egypt it has to do a better job protecting Americans if they want the US to follow through with $1 billion in debt forgiveness.
  • Provide more help to the Syrian opposition, perhaps by facilitating the transfer of arms from other neighboring Arab states.

Again, in practice all these issues involve complications that may make these flat statements difficult to live up to. On Iran, Romney definitely sounds more hawkish than Obama. Obama has said Iran can’t get a nuclear weapon, but beyond that he’s laid out few specifics. The problem is the stakes. If Iran truly believes its security lies in developing nuclear weapons, will only war stop it? Is the US public prepared to support another Middle East conflict? A president that makes explicit threats in this area may face having to live up to them.

Romney foreign policy adviser Eliot Cohen told The New York Times that President Romney would “not be content with an Iran one screwdriver’s turn away from a nuclear weapon.” Beyond that he was not definite as to where Romney’s red line might be.

Egypt has definitely become a difficult issue for the US. New Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the formerly-banned Muslim Brotherhood, appears as interested in appeasing domestic anti-Americanism as in working with the US on broader issues. That’s led some in Congress to agitate for a cutoff of US aid.

But is that the answer? Foreign policy expert Robert Kagan, long associated with neoconservative doctrine, argues that it isn’t.

“If Egypt’s economy crumbles, is it going to be less radical?” he writes in an opinion piece for The Foreign Policy Initiative.

Obama has been right to reach out to the new Egyptian government, according to Mr. Kagan. It’s been wrong in that it has not said clearly enough what it expects from the new regime.

“This is not the time for a ‘who lost Egypt’ debate,” writes Kagan.

Finally, as to providing more aid to the Syrian opposition, the Western world has been reluctant to become overtly involved in Syria, as it did in Libya, precisely because the stakes are so high. A misstep could draw in Iran and spark wider regional conflict.

That said, we would be surprised if the US was not already facilitating arms for the opposition delivered via regional allies as a covert operation.

In sum, Romney’s criticism of Obama is that on foreign affairs, he’s following instead of leading.

“As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we’re at the mercy of events instead of shaping events. And a strong America’s essential to shape events,” said Romney in Virginia on Thursday.

Of course, it’s easy to vow you’ll drive the world when you’re out of office. Many candidates have found that once they sit in the West Wing, globe has a nasty habit of erupting at any time in ways they haven't predicted, and that shaping the behavior of other nations is harder than it looked from a campaign podium.

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