The Middle East is an easy target for an aspiring US president on the attack against an incumbent rival. You can bet that there are enough unresolved crises that affect America in one way or another, and I don’t mean just the perennial Arab-Israeli conflict.
And, since the region has something of a love-hate relationship with the US, there will always be a sufficient number of critics within the Middle East to back up the American presidential candidate’s arguments, however flawed they might be.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech today at the Virginia Military Institute in which he first tore apart Barack Obama’s Middle Eastern policies, but then proceeded to outline a rather similar approach couched as fundamental change.
To be fair, he did have one or two different ideas, including his support for arming Syria’s rebels and his assessment that the US should develop influence “with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East”.
But take Iran, for example, where Mr Romney calls for new sanctions and tighten existing ones. Isn’t that the Obama administration’s policy?
Mr Romney also wants to increase military assistance and coordination with Israel but he gives no hint at all that he would back or join Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Mr Obama has resisted. He harshly criticises the current administration’s strained relations with the Israeli government – “the world must never see any daylight between our nations,” he says – but would he allow an Israeli prime minister to pressurise him into waging war on Iran if it were not in the US’s own interests?
The Republican candidate’s proposed policies, moreover, carry the same contradictions that have long plagued America’s relationship with the Middle East. He wants to support friends who “share our values” and organise assistance to those who respect the rights of their citizens, including women and minorities. But as he seeks to pressurise Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions, he also calls for deepening cooperation with “our partners in the Gulf,” some of whom neither share American values nor show respect for women and minorities.
Mr Romney says that “there is longing for American leadership in the Middle East”, a statement which is only partly true, and that depends on where you are in the region and what issue is at stake. It could be true for Israel and in relation to American policy towards Iran and for some Arab states seeking US leadership on Syria. It is true for all Arab states, moreover, in one particular case: they want American pressure on Israel but that is something that Mr Romney is likely to resist. Among emerging democracies in the region, meanwhile, the longing is not for American leadership in the region as much as for a nuanced relationship with the US, based on cooperation and mutual interests.