Romney gave a speech the other day on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). This is perhaps the central theme of the speech:
America can take pride in the blows that our military and intelligence professionals have inflicted on Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. These are real achievements won at a high cost. But Al-Qaeda remains a strong force in Yemen and Somalia, in Libya and other parts of North Africa, in Iraq, and now in Syria. And other extremists have gained ground across the region. Drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East.
The President is fond of saying that “The tide of war is receding.” And I want to believe him as much as anyone.
But when we look at the Middle East today—with Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, with the conflict in Syria threating to destabilize the region, with violent extremists on the march, and with an American Ambassador and three others dead likely at the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliates— it is clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the President took office.
I know the President hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy. We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of, and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity.Barry Rubin analyzed the speech. Though he was encouraged by the speech, Prof. Rubin had a number of substantive critiques. This was the strongest:
Here, Romney does not recognize the systematic revolutionary Islamist challenge to U.S. interests. We are back on the safe ground — on which Obama basically agrees — that the problem is just al-Qaeda, rather than also the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafist groups. (Obama’s problem is that having said he already defeated al-Qaeda, he cannot admit that this supposedly destroyed group just assassinated an American ambassador.)
If Romney wants to focus his policy on just al-Qaeda, how can he compete with Obama’s ability to point out that he killed Osama bin Laden? One could even argue that Romney’s approach — the problem is bad terrorists who kill Americans — plays into Obama’s hands.Thomas Friedman criticized the speech, though it's not entirely clear that he read or listened to it. Friedman started It's not just about us with:
Obviously, Romney should not foreclose his options in dealing with Egypt, for example, by declaring its regime to be an enemy — despite the fact that even Obama has admitted it is no longer an ally. Yet Romney could have done better in defining the situation.
Mitt Romney gave a foreign policy speech on Monday that could be boiled down to one argument: everything wrong with the Middle East today can be traced to a lack of leadership by President Obama. If this speech is any indication of the quality of Romney’s thinking on foreign policy, then we should worry. It was not sophisticated in describing the complex aspirations of the people of the Middle East. It was not accurate in describing what Obama has done or honest about the prior positions Romney has articulated. And it was not compelling or imaginative in terms of the strategic alternatives it offered. The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us — and them.I love it when Friedman writes about how we need "radical new approaches" to anything. Usually it means nothing more than following his (often mistaken) advice. But one paragraph in Romney's speech reminded me of something that Friedman himself wrote.
We saw all of this in Benghazi last month—but we also saw something else, something hopeful. After the attack on our Consulate, tens of thousands of Libyans, most of them young people, held a massive protest in Benghazi against the very extremists who murdered our people. They waved signs that read, “The Ambassador was Libya’s friend” and “Libya is sorry.” They chanted “No to militias.” They marched, unarmed, to the terrorist compound. Then they burned it to the ground. As one Libyan woman said, “We are not going to go from darkness to darkness.”In Backlash to the Backlash, Friedman wrote:
It is not clear whether this trend can spread or be sustained. But having decried the voices of intolerance that so often intimidate everyone in that region, I find it heartening to see Libyans carrying signs like “We want justice for Chris” and “No more Al Qaeda” — and demanding that armed militias disband. This coincides with some brutally honest articles in the Arab/Muslim press — in response to rioting triggered by the idiotic YouTube video insulting the Prophet Muhammad — that are not the usual “What is wrong with America?” but, rather, “What is wrong with us, and how do we fix it?”Maybe I read Romney's speech incorrectly, but in a lot of it he sounded very Friedmanesque, expressing hope that the Arab Spring brought. Romney differs from Friedman more on how to deal with the bad guys than in his view of the Middle East.
Getting back to Barry Rubin's critique of Romney, though it's useless to request, it's time for the National Jewish Democratic Council to apologize to Rubin. Back in June, in response to one of Rubin's critiques of Obama's policy towards Israel, the NJDC Steve Sheffey wrote Barry Rubin’s Fuzzy Thinking. Sheffey, who, unlike Rubin, is an expert in nothing took ananalysis written by Rubin, repeatedly attacked on Rubin's first point, ignoring his other substantive points. (For good measure, Sheffey didn't even have the courage to link to Rubin's column, so his readers could actually read Rubin's column.)
Sheffey, at the end quoted former Congressman Robert Wexler that arguments like Rubin's are "...the argument Republican surrogates make." If Barry Rubin was a "Republican surrogate" he would have warmly embraced Gov. Romney's speech uncritically. To be sure, Rubin is more favorably disposed towards Romney than he is towards President Obama. But Rubin is his own man. He is not a partisan hack. Like Sheffey.
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