Commenting on the Obama-Romney foreign policy debate on Al Jazeera, click on video above or link here, Hillary Mann Leverett pointed out that “the one question that could not really be sharply asked or answered was: ‘Was the American ambassador in Libya actually killed by people who were armed, trained, and funded by the United States and our so-called allies.’ That can’t be asked because both of these candidates are about remaking the Muslim world and killing Muslims with drones. That’s not a serious policy. A serious policy should look squarely at what the United States is doing, in terms of arming, training, and funding people to overthrow their governments. That’s not normal, constructive behavior, and it will come back to haunt the United States.”
The Obama-Romney debate revealed much about the strategic and moral bankruptcy of America’s approach to the Middle East. On Syria, attachment to the delusion that the United States can arm, fund and train fighters to undermine the Assad government—and that some of those same fighters won’t turn weapons they have been given against U.S. and Western interests—remains strong in both the Democratic and Republican camps. This delusion is grounded, in large part, in an assessment that overthrowing the Assad government—Iran’s “only Arab ally”—will undermine Iran’s regional position and perhaps even spark the Islamic Republic’s overthrow. But, as Hillary notes, “Iran’s ‘only Arab ally’ today is not Syria. Did [Romney] ever hear of Iraq? Iraq is today Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world. That’s a huge country. Iran can also get anywhere it wants through Suez, because now it has Egypt. So, for the first time in 30 years, Iranian military ships can go through Suez.”
Like its Libya policy, America’s policy toward Syria also holds significant potential for blowback. This was highlighted by recent reports of anti-Assad fighters in Jordan taking weapons they had been provided, ostensibly to use in their campaign to unseat the Syrian government, and instead making plans to attack the U.S. Embassy and other targets in the Hashemite Kingdom. As Hillary comments, “That doesn’t even get questioned…People don’t even seem to be phased by it, that there was a planned attack on a[nother] U.S. Embassy that could have killed more Americans, because of a policy that we’ve egged on in Syria, just like we egged it on in Libya and then we are ‘shocked, shocked’ when our ambassador gets killed. We’re going to be ‘shocked, shocked’ again that we’re going to have a problem in Jordan or some of the other pro-American client states.”
On Iran, Obama was, if anything, more hawkish than Romney. As Hillary points out, Obama “actually gave Prime Minister Netanyahu his red line”—by noting how, as a result of America’s intelligence cooperation with Israel, the United States would know when Iran is approaching “breakout” capability and pledging that a re-elected Obama administration would act military to prevent the Islamic Republic from crossing such a threshold. Romney, in contrast, “focused on an oil embargo, which will have devastating [humanitarian] effects…but it’s not the same red line that Netanyahu has been demanding and that I think he received in a significant way tonight from President Obama.” Hillary excoriates Romney’s proposal to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—“who will be leaving office in a few months”—for inciting genocide as a call to indict Ahmadinejad “for the nonexistent threat that Ahmadinejad never made to wipe Israel off the map. That has become a social fact because the President, others, other candidates, and many in the media repeat it…But it was never said. And now Romney would like to initiate court proceedings.”
On Afghanistan, Hillary’s fellow commentator, former British diplomat Carne Ross, notes that “neither candidate really mentioned the fact that [America’s] Afghanistan policy is in crisis, that there is a really severe threat of a complete breakdown after the U.S. withdrawal; indeed, that breakdown is arguably already happening.” Picking up on the point, Hillary recounts how Obama “decided to send tens of thousands of young Americans [to Afghanistan]—some of whom I’ve had in my classes at American University—who go believing that they are fighting for something, but the something seems to have been just political cover to let Obama take troops out” later, even though the situation is deteriorating. Afghan “security forces are being trained up—and are killing their American trainers. This is a crisis. There’s no political strategy. There’s no political vision” on how to stabilize Afghanistan through a negotiated political settlement and power-sharing among various Afghan constituencies.
Finally, on China, Hillary critiques America’s “pivot to Asia”—which is likely to continue and intensify either under a re-elected Obama administration or a new Romney administration—as “fail[ing] to understand the changing balance of power and the rise, not just of China, but of India, of the BRICS, of even Iran and Turkey, of even Egypt. It fails to understand that the United States is a country, not in absolute decline, but in relative decline. In that circumstance, we have to be able to play well with others, not just beat them in these so-called wars.”
In Hillary’s view, Romney lays out a maximalist strategy, “which will require a tremendous amount of money we don’t have,” to “pacify the entire world”: a strategy for the United States to “to bring peace (peace just means pro-American political and security order) to the world. We have to bring it everywhere. That means not just trying to pursue dominance and hegemony in the Middle East, but in Asia and everywhere.” And while Romney is being criticized in some quarters for having embraced too many of the same policies that Obama has pursued during his first term in office, Obama could just as easily (and accurately) be criticized for pursuing too many of George W. Bush’s foreign policies.
And that’s the state of America’s foreign policy “debate.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett