Mitt Romney gave one of his most cogent comments regarding Egypt on ABC News:
He is right, of course, that we need to encourage the Egyptian regime to change its behavior. That is what the Obama administration says it wants to do. It just has failed to do so or, more broadly, to implement a successful Middle East policy, as one can readily determine from the burning embassies, the dead American diplomats and the open strife with Israel.
I don’t think, however, that Romney has adequately explained how we got to this point or what we could do differently. For conservatives, this is a critical moment, for it is the best evidence yet that the right correctly analyzed the dangers of President Obama’s “lead from behind” foreign policy.
During the entire Obama term the conservative foreign policy community has made a simple argument: If the United States doesn’t lead and signals weakness, bad things will happen. And now here we are. Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies sent me a pithy e-mail this morning: “It’s essential that our allies and our enemies — and those who fall in between — understand that actions carry consequences. . . . [Middle East scholar] Bernard Lewis has said many times that people around the world should view America as the best friend you can have — and the most dangerous enemy. But at the least, it is vital that the opposite impression not be conveyed: That America is harmless as an enemy and treacherous as a friend.”
It is up to the Romney-Ryan campaign to spell this out, and it now has a unique moment when everyone is finally paying attention to national security.
Since entering office, President Obama has, in nearly every aspect of foreign policy, conveyed that “opposite impression” to which May refers. He did not negotiate a status of forces agreement in Iraq, widely seen as providing no counterweight to Iranian influence. He sped up the departure from Afghanistan to match his electoral calendar. He refuses to act in Syria without Russia’s permission. In regards to Iran, Obama and his advisers were mum during the Green Revolution. They have often talked down the military option. They failed to take action (as they said they would) against the plotters who tried to assassinate a Saudi diplomat.
How are these interpreted in the Middle East? The U.S. is weak. The U.S. won’t act in its own defense if the domestic political cost is too high. The U.S. wants the United Nations to take the lead.
With regard to Egypt in particular, we failed (obviously) to impress upon the regime its obligations to the United States. For example, we released aid without preconditions. We have been mute about violence against Copts. That communicates an unwillingness to stand up to radical elements and is a sign to Egyptian officials that they literally (not Joe Biden literally, but literally, literally) stand by and do nothing when Americans are imperiled. In Libya, our idea of leading from behind, not putting any military in the country, left the country in chaos, even after the war. That has come home to roost as the country remains essentially a failed state, unable to govern and control extremists. Moreover, there is a real question of how well we know the players and to what extent we have developed relationships on the ground.
In sum, we haven’t done what the White House itself said it would, namely get involved in the region enough to know the good guys and the bad guys, figure out where our aid is helping or hurting, and communicate that there are serious consequences for crossing the United States.
This was the same cause and effect leading up to the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. It is a repeat of the 1990s, when the Clinton administration did not adequately respond to the Somali incident and a series of al-Qaeda bombings. We know how that ended, which should have reminded us on Sept. 11, of all dates, to be prepared for violence.
There is also a serious management issue with regard to the entire Obama national security apparatus. Is our intelligence operation up to snuff? With serial leaking and a supposed lack of warning about a coordinated attack on our embassies, you’d have to conclude something is very, very wrong. And finally, the absolute breakdown in State Department coordination (letting the errant messages go out from Cairo, not pulling it back for hours) is a sign of dysfunction. It suggests that the average State Department official’s reflex in response to looming violence should be to criticize “defamation of Islam.”
That is how we got from Obama taking office in January 2009 to burning embassies in September 2012. We could have had a different set of policy choices. For example, we didn’t need to set a withdrawal date with the original Afghanistan surge or later foreshorten it. We didn’t need to have Cabinet-level officials continually talking down the military option with Iran. We could have retaliated for the Saudi plot, successfully negotiated a status of forces agreement and — here’s the big one — backed the Green Movement to the hilt, in which case the entire course of Middle East history could have shifted. We could have declined to wait for the Mother-may-I routine with Russia for action in Syria. We could have established meaningful contacts with Syrian rebels months and months ago. And so it goes.
It is not that complicated, really. Policies have consequences. A different set of policies is no guarantee of complete success, but events sure could have turned out better than they have.(And conservatives have some historical evidence on their side from the Reagan years and the 7 1/2 years under President George W. Bush following Sept. 11.)
Even Jimmy Carter (who disdained the “inordinate fear of communism”) got his wake-up call when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. When does this president wake up?
These are some of the big policy issues the Romney-Ryan team would be smart to explain. But there is also a host of immediate, managerial issues that may suggest reckless disregard for the safety of our personnel. How were the embassies secured? What precautions did we take on Sept. 11? What were the rules of engagement for embassy personnel? What conversations had we had with the Egyptian government about security in advance of Sept. 11?
In short, both at the macro- and micro-level there are ample grounds to conclude that this administration has failed to advance American interests. Romney should make the case that both different policies and more competent management would leave us safer and more secure and the world more peaceful and more free.
That is not an argument that will make itself; Romney has to do it, and with some degree of specificity. (“Peace through strength” is a bumper sticker, not a policy argument.) Let’s see if he can.