Commentary Magazine


Topic: Middle East policy

Etch A Sketch Versus Flexibility

Mitt Romney’s greatest liability heading into the fall campaign has been his well-earned reputation for flip-flopping on the issues. That’s why last week’s gaffe by longtime Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, in which he described the “reset” of his Republican primary campaign to a more centrist one in the general election as similar to an Etch A Sketch toy, was so telling. But though that line will dog Romney all the way to November, President Obama has now supplied the GOP with one that will more than balance it.

Though his unscripted “hot mic” moment with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has been rightly excoriated as evidence of the president’s feckless foreign policy principles, it is also one that should take a bit of the fizz out of the Democrat’s attempt to portray Romney as a phony. While it is fair to judge Romney as someone who might be adjusting his campaign rhetoric for a general audience after tilting to the right when trying to win his party’s nomination, Obama’s promised post-election tilt to the left ought to scare the electorate even more.

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Mitt Romney’s greatest liability heading into the fall campaign has been his well-earned reputation for flip-flopping on the issues. That’s why last week’s gaffe by longtime Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, in which he described the “reset” of his Republican primary campaign to a more centrist one in the general election as similar to an Etch A Sketch toy, was so telling. But though that line will dog Romney all the way to November, President Obama has now supplied the GOP with one that will more than balance it.

Though his unscripted “hot mic” moment with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has been rightly excoriated as evidence of the president’s feckless foreign policy principles, it is also one that should take a bit of the fizz out of the Democrat’s attempt to portray Romney as a phony. While it is fair to judge Romney as someone who might be adjusting his campaign rhetoric for a general audience after tilting to the right when trying to win his party’s nomination, Obama’s promised post-election tilt to the left ought to scare the electorate even more.

The Obama presidency has been short on achievements. After the passage of his signature health care plan (whose constitutionality will be decided by the Supreme Court this spring), the stimulus boondoggle and the car bailout, he has had little to show for himself. Most of the last three-plus years have been spent on tactical maneuvering to no great end. But as Obama’s revealing remarks to Medvedev make clear, he is looking forward to a second term to show his true colors. The pose of centrism — of being the only adult in the room as he tried to portray himself during the debt-ceiling crisis — will be gone. If he is given a more pliable Congress in 2013, another round of over-the-top expenditures, higher taxes and expansions of government power are a virtual certainty.

On foreign policy, more “flexibility” to appease Russia is just the tip of the iceberg. Of even greater interest to most Americans should be how the president shifts his stance on the Middle East. Obama has devoted a great deal of energy in recent months to his charm offensive aimed at Jewish voters in which he has portrayed himself as Israel’s greatest friend. But it takes no stretch of the imagination to conjure up exactly how friendly a second Obama administration will be to the Jewish state once the constraints of his “last election” are removed. It should be little different from his first three years in office that were marked by constant fights with Israel’s government and initiatives that tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians.

In the Middle East, Obama’s “flexibility” will likely mean recognition of Hamas and its role in the Palestinian Authority and efforts to bring the United States closer to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as well as a return to pressure tactics aimed at Israel.

When placed against the Etch A Sketch charge lodged against Romney, Obama’s second term “flexibility” seems a much more serious charge.

Though Romney may be accused of catering to conservatives in the primaries, the basic outlines of a Romney presidency aren’t in much doubt. We know he will work to repeal ObamaCare (should it not be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), work to reform entitlements and strengthen national defense. That he is not someone who is inclined to radical shifts or revolutionary efforts to overturn the existing system is troubling to the right who want a complete paradigm change in Washington rather than a competent manager or reformer. There is no deception here, just a matter of managing perceptions, as we all know Romney will attempt to govern in a moderate fashion.

By contrast, the mendacity of Obama’s attempt to portray himself as a moderate is stunning, and a second term will be the only way to find out just how far to the left he willing to go. This makes for a general election campaign that should turn on rival charges of deception. The certainty that Obama’s flexibility will mean a hard shift to the left ought to outweigh worries about Romney’s Etch A Sketch proclivities.

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Failed Middle East Theories? Look in the Mirror, Tom Friedman

Thomas Friedman’s rants about foreign policy on the op-ed page of the New York Times are generally predictable if not particularly insightful. But today’s installment is original in one respect. In it he references an article in the National Review by respected conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson gives a laundry list of American foreign policy failures in the Middle East and concludes that maybe America should just realize that all of the existing theories about the Arab and Muslim world are fatally flawed. Hanson is generally right, but what rings false about Friedman’s praise for the piece is that in doing so he fails to acknowledge his own support for some of those failed approaches. He also slyly tries to include one other aspect of American policy in the list of failures that was conspicuous by its absence from Hanson’s article: support for Israel.

It’s true that, as Hanson points out:

Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.

But in endorsing this sobering judgment, Friedman fails to note that he has served for the last 20 years as a faithful advocate for the foreign policy “realism” that he criticizes. Nor does he have the guts to point out that his best-selling “flat earth” theories about how economic concerns will trump those of religion and nationalism in the 21st century have been shown to be as laughably out of touch with the reality of the Middle East as any other.

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Thomas Friedman’s rants about foreign policy on the op-ed page of the New York Times are generally predictable if not particularly insightful. But today’s installment is original in one respect. In it he references an article in the National Review by respected conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson gives a laundry list of American foreign policy failures in the Middle East and concludes that maybe America should just realize that all of the existing theories about the Arab and Muslim world are fatally flawed. Hanson is generally right, but what rings false about Friedman’s praise for the piece is that in doing so he fails to acknowledge his own support for some of those failed approaches. He also slyly tries to include one other aspect of American policy in the list of failures that was conspicuous by its absence from Hanson’s article: support for Israel.

It’s true that, as Hanson points out:

Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.

But in endorsing this sobering judgment, Friedman fails to note that he has served for the last 20 years as a faithful advocate for the foreign policy “realism” that he criticizes. Nor does he have the guts to point out that his best-selling “flat earth” theories about how economic concerns will trump those of religion and nationalism in the 21st century have been shown to be as laughably out of touch with the reality of the Middle East as any other.

But even more dishonest is his decision to try and throw in the one element of American foreign policy that Hanson does not denounce: the alliance with Israel. According to Friedman, America’s unwillingness to strong arm Israel into making concessions on territory to Palestinians who have already demonstrated their complete disinterest in making peace on any terms is also undermining our foreign policy. But no other theory about how America should approach the Middle East has been proven to be false as conclusively as Friedman’s blind faith in “land for peace.”

Even worse, in summarizing our refusal to “tell the truth” to countries in the Middle East, he makes the following generalizations:

But we don’t tell Pakistan the truth because it has nukes. We don’t tell the Saudis the truth because we’re addicted to their oil. We don’t tell Bahrain the truth because we need its naval base. We don’t tell Egypt the truth because we’re afraid it will walk from Camp David. We don’t tell Israel the truth because it has votes. And we don’t tell Karzai the truth because Obama is afraid John McCain will call him a wimp.

The United States may be guilty of a great many faults in the Middle East but let’s not pretend that America’s views have been kept a secret. Pakistan is well aware of American public opinion of its double game on terrorism. The Saudis know Washington is dubious about their ability to maintain an oil-fueled oligarchy. The same can be said of Bahrain and the Afghan government is under no misapprehension about American doubts about its future. And certainly after three plus years of Barack Obama in the White House, Israel is aware (not withstanding Obama’s election year charm offensive aimed at Jewish voters) that he takes a dim view of the Jewish state’s position on the territories.

In adding Israel to that list, Friedman once again slips in offensive language that is redolent of the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy theories about The Israel Lobby. In December, Friedman earned the scorn of the Jewish world for falsely claiming that the Congressional ovations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Here, he seems to be repeating that anti-Semitic slur by alleging that the votes of the pro-Israel community — a vast bi-partisan force that encompasses the overwhelming majority of all Americans — has prevented the U.S. from placing enough pressure on the Jewish state.

But a different twist on that phrase shows why Hanson rightly did not include Israel in his formulation. It is the “votes” of Israelis — which makes it the one true democracy in the Middle East — that makes it the exception to his rule in which the lack of shared values prevents the United States from establishing a coherent relationship with the other countries in the region.

We can debate just how effective a U.S. policy of democracy promotion can be but the one thing that the alliance with Israel proves is that its absence makes a long-term commitment to a nation a shaky proposition. While American Middle East policy has been a mess, Thomas Friedman’s contributions to that legacy as well as his smears of Israel’s supporters deserve prominent mention in any list of such failures.

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