Mitt Romney (the Candidate) on the Middle East
[Originally published on CounterPunch, June 21, 2012]
Campaign rhetoric generally strains credulity, and no less so during the recent Republican
mobilization to unseat Barack Obama. From the GOP primaries to the present, the candidates - and now
Mitt Romney in particular - have intensified the atmosphere where a candidate cannot possibly pledge
with enough ardor - or redundancy - devotion to family, the Constitution, the free market, and
The first three talking points in the above list are generally meaningless, merely functioning as
easy bona fides: Being pro-family is like being anti-genocide. The Constitution is merely a metonym
for "America," as is the phrase "free market," despite its basic nonexistence. The subject of Israel
naturally serves the same purpose, but is connected to the very real world of foreign policy.
On June 16, Romney addressed the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, DC, via video link, and during the Q&A session commented
on the subject of Israel and Obama. His remarks invite comment, for what it's worth given the
context: Republicans seek much-needed votes among conservative Christian organizations on account of
the GOP's unrepresentative policy agenda; that is, tending to the needs of people like citizen
Romney against the needs of the middle class people who, incidentally, make up the bulk of Christian
evangelicals. As a result, the rhetoric is dialed up even more than usual and, as mentioned, this
reality should be taken into consideration.
Generally speaking, caution is advised against immersion into the clamor of party politics. Voters
do have serious, vested interests and therefore must negotiate the political order as it exists and
try to determine where candidates stand. That being said, the blizzard of statistics, debates,
soundbites, points, counterpoints, "gaffes," and controversies offers little more than bewilderment;
the media coverage alone is a national disgrace. A particular peril of this blizzard is that one can
forget one is even in it. As a result, the population begins to adopt the language and vocabulary
provided by the parties. And when the voting public's words are supplanted, so to is its thinking.
One then forgets (or suppresses) the original policy concerns he or she originally went in with.
Roughly 70 percent of Americans want some kind of national, single-payer healthcare plan; but
because this thinking is off the partisan spectrum, it's off the agenda. Out of sight, out of mind -
hence the value in taking heed.
Nevertheless, Romney's message on Israel suggests an ultra-hawkish position on the Middle East and
is worth a thought.
In his answer to a question about how, as president, Romney would strengthen ties with Israel, he
replied that "by and large you could just look at the things the president has done and do the
opposite." I do not disagree with the former governor's words here. A good way to improve on
President Obama's overall Middle East policy - not just Israel - would be to, in many instances, do
- Cease the drone-attack policy
- Close Guantanamo Bay
- Withdraw from and internationalize a development
effort in Afghanistan; pay reparations
- Place real pressure on Israel regarding settlements and
diplomacy in accordance with international law, resulting in a Palestinian state
- Help foster real international diplomacy concerning de-escalation in Syria
- Rely on diplomatic strategies for dissuading Iran from ever moving toward uranium enrichment over 20 percent; normalize relations
When candidate Romney said "opposite" with regard to Obama's handling of Israel, he of course didn't
Romney then went on to raise a number of points including: (1) criticizing Obama for "castigat[ing]
Israel for building settlements"; (2) alleging that the president seems "more frightened that Israel
might take military action than he's concerned that Iran might become nuclear"; (3) lamenting
Obama's "insistence that Israel return to the '67 borders, [which are] indefensible borders"; (4)
condemning Obama for being "disrespectful of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu"; and (5) urging
the further arming of the Syrian opposition.
The governor is off the mark on all five points.
First, the Obama administration has indeed been critical of Israel's settlement program, which is
standard White House policy and has been for decades. But being critical minus actual pressure
equals consent. It should be pointed out that Israel's building of settlements in the occupied
Palestinian West Bank is in contravention of international law. What is more, Obama has done nothing
to stop Israel's settlement activity.
Second, Israel attacking Iran is precisely a frightening proposition. A number of US and Israeli
security and defense elites have said as much. Therefore, fright is the appropriate response.
Whether this is what Obama is experiencing is another matter. The president's handling of Iran thus
far has been irresponsible, illegal, and has likely inspired Tehran to at least further weigh the
benefits of joining the nuclear club. Into the bargain, Israel has been allowed a great deal of
latitude on the issue and has been afforded ample room in the American press to set the tone for
discussion (see New York Times Magazine, Jan. 25, 2012). And it bears repeating that there is no
evidence that Iran is heading toward a weapons program.
Third, the June 1967 borders - also called the Green Line - are the internationally recognized
borders between Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and have been the
diplomatic point of departure for 45 years. Obama's position is not new, and again, the White House
has done absolutely nothing on this point.
Fourth, Romney's stated concern for how the president of the United States has treated Israel's
prime minister is more strange than anything else. Israel is a US client and is actually expected to
be recalcitrant to a degree. When Israel goes too far, its leash gets jerked. Tel Aviv's diplomatic
embarrassment of Vice President Joe Biden in spring 2010 with an announcement of major settlement
expansion was just such a case, for which Netanyahu was roundly reprimanded. There have been many
other instances. Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was brought to heel by George H. W. Bush in
1992, when documents thoroughly embarrassing to Israel started to get "leaked" after the prime
minister crossed the line concerning, again, settlements. It is doubtful Romney knows this history.
It is doubtful he even cares how one leader treats another. It is also doubtful his national
allegiance is split (it being uncertain he has any to begin with), but one could possibly be within
bounds to question him on this point.
Finally, the fact that segments of the opposition in Syria armed themselves in the first place
explains much of the destruction and bloodshed. This in no way excuses Syrian president Bashar
al-Assad's brutality. But further arming the Free Syrian Army and others - which the Obama
administration is indirectly involved in vis-a-vis Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (Independent, June 13) - can only inflame
matters. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan's peace initiative is a sensible path. Romney's is
Watching Mitt Romney over the last year, it is difficult if not impossible to determine where he
stands. Therefore, one can only take him at his word and evaluate what he happens to be saying at
that particular moment. On the topic of Israel and Middle Eastern policy, he has made similar
remarks in the past. Whether he believes them, or stands behind them, or is simply playing to the
room is anyone's guess. Beyond the inaccuracies and inconsistencies, where might a President Romney
fall in on the subject of the Middle East? Though an equally speculative issue, a plausible, sober
answer appeared in the May issue of Foreign Policy in an article entitled "Barack
The piece was authored by Aaron David Miller, a former State Department envoy and longtime adviser
on Middle East diplomacy, and his conclusion is quite simple: "there's just not that much difference
between the two." In other words, when it comes to foreign-policy formulation, Obama and Romney are
cut from the same bolt of fabric. Miller, a stalwart insider and meticulous custodian of American
power in the Middle East - and protector of Israel's diplomatic preferences - can spot his own kind
Irrespective of who wins this November, continuity will likely, and sadly, be the victor. If there
is, however, any sincerity in Romney's campaign pronouncements and he wins, the outcome could be
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