Mitt Romney has landed himself squarely in the middle of a complex, fast-moving foreign policy nightmare that is still unfolding: the explosion of anger in the Middle East over an anti-Muslim propaganda film made in the US.
Romney, in turn, faces a backlash over the timing and wording of his statement, and questions about whether the facts as we know them match his statement.
Let me say a couple of points of principle that shape my view of this debate: First, I don’t think it is the responsibility of a presidential challenger to remain silent in situations like this.
I think it’s absolutely appropriate for Romney to criticize the president and describe how he would handle a particular foreign policy challenge differently.
Whenever politicians or pundits insist that silence is the best policy — during a crisis, in particular — that is usually a shorthand for saying, “We don’t want to face tough, thorny questions.”
I also think it’s perfectly appropriate for Romney (and his conservative allies) to question whether the Obama administration has had a coherent policy toward the fast-evolving Middle East, as old dictatorships have toppled and street movements have shifted the balance of power.
What are our interests in the region? How will they be protected in this complicated new environment? What exactly is our relationship with Israel and where are the lines in the sand where that long-standing partnership is concerned?
I think Obama can be faulted fairly for failing to give a clear sense of his “doctrine” on these matters. And one way that Romney might distinguish himself is by offering a plan of his own.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what has happened, either before or after this latest crisis.
Romney’s campaign strategy has been to embrace the fiction that Obama has weakened America by “apologizing” to the world, and to the Middle East in particular, for our past policies.
This notion is deeply wound up in conservative fantasies about the president’s religious faith (he’s a ‘closeted Muslim’) or his hidden ideological tendencies (he is secretly using the US to wage a war against ‘Western colonialism’).
To claim that Obama “sympathizes” with the brutal murderers of American diplomatic officials, as Romney and the chairman of the Republican Party both did this week, means embracing those fantasies wholesale.
Pause for a moment to consider those statements.
Suggesting that America’s commander in chief is sympathetic — their word — to the actions of murderous thugs who just killed a top diplomatic official? It makes the birthers sound moderate and reasoned.
We know factually that the statement which Romney described as the latest example of the Obama administration “apologizing” for America was actually issued before any fatalities had occurred.
And this is only the latest juncture where right-wing make-believe about the president’s foreign policy clashes with factual reality.
We know that the Obama administration has pursued an incredibly aggressive war-fighting policy in Afghanistan.
He has pushed predator drone attacks into Pakistan, Yemen and other countries, and has largely decapitated the leadership of Al Quaeda — not only through the killing of Osama bin Laden.
He has presided over a period during which some of America’s longest-standing adversaries,from Libya to Syria, have been forced from power or cornered by insurrection. Many of those despots had been frequent supporters of Islamic terrorism against the US.
We also know that Obama is a practicing Christian, and we know that he has no record of cravenly apologizing for the US or trying to “downsize” the nation as punishment for our colonial past.
And we know that with the exception of one rogue Muslim soldier who opened fire on an American military base, the Obama administration has prevented further terror attacks on US soil.
Which doesn’t mean that Republicans should keep quiet, obviously.
If Mitt Romney has a fact-based critique of Obama’s handling of events in the Middle East, or the war on terror, he should speak up boldly. Even better would be to outline his own plan for advancing and protecting US interests in the Middle East.
This is indeed a perfect time to let Americans know what his foreign policy vision might be. Perhaps he wants Israel to attack Iran? Or does he want American boots on the ground in Syria? Should we work to restore American-friendly dictatorships, perhaps in Egypt or Yemen?
For the record, here’s what Romney does say about the Middle East on his website. He promises to appoint a single person in his administration to eventually come up with a plan for what to do about the Middle East.
“One official with responsibility and accountability will be able to set regional priorities, craft a unified regional strategic plan, and properly direct our soft power toward ensuring the Arab Spring realizes its promise,” Romney says.
Romney is careful to make the political point that he’s not creating a “Middle East czar” for the region, because the word “czar” is out of favor with conservatives. But he offers no actual concrete ideas for managing our ties to that turbulent region.
I share the view of some conservative pundits that this is the perfect time for Mitt Romney to force a debate over foreign policy and share his thinking about America’s role in the world.
Particularly given the GOP’s troubled record overseas during the Bush years, the likelihood that many Bush-era security officials would join Romney’s team, and his behavior during the current crisis, that conversation is long overdue.