Obama vs. Romney on the Mideast

Where the candidates come down on Syria, Iran and other key regional questions. 

Mitt Romney gave his most detailed foreign-policy speech last week at the Virginia Military Institute, just in time for his forthcoming foreign-policy debate with Barack Obama. Romney’s focus on the Middle East in that address allows for a serious discussion about the similarities and differences between the policies of each candidate toward that region.

The Middle East was barely mentioned in Tuesday night’s debate. Romney said the President’s regional “strategy is unraveling before our very eyes,” listing Egypt, Iran, Israel, Libya and Syria, but before he could explain his position moderator Candy Crowley changed topics.

The October 22 foreign-policy debate, however, will give Obama and Romney ample opportunities to talk about the Middle East, and U.S. voters can hope moderator Bob Schieffer pushes the candidates to discuss real differences.

A look at candidates’ policy pronouncements to date shows remarkable similarities in security policies toward the Middle East, while the two men differ on how to manage relationships in the region.

Iran

Prior to the consulate attack in Benghazi last month, Iran was one of the few foreign-policy issues raised in this election campaign. Appearing on Meet the Press on September 9, Romney called the Obama administration’s handling of the Iranian nuclear program perhaps its biggest failure.

However, the Romney campaign hasn’t laid out a path appreciably different from Obama-administration actions.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Romney said the United States must “restore its credibility with Iran,” a point he and his surrogates often make. But restoring credibility is a strategy, not a policy, and the Romney camp has failed to outline the policies that would restore U.S. credibility.

A “red line” that would trigger U.S. action against Iran became a major issue when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that the United States clarify this marker. The president said: “The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

In a September 14 interview with ABC News, Romney agreed specifically that his red line was the same as the president’s. However, since then he and his surrogates have differentiated their red line by saying Iran should not have the “capability” to produce nuclear weapons, although the meaning of “capability” remains fuzzy.

Prime Minister Netanyahu also has emphasized that Iran should not be allowed to have the capability for a nuclear weapon, but top Romney surrogate Eliot Cohen has said that where Romney draws the line “could be in a different place than Mr. Netanyahu draws it.”

On the possibility of a war with Iran, critics on the Left and Right raise fears that, as conservative writer Daniel Larison put it, a Romney administration “will almost certainly be stuffed to the gills with militarists and Iran hawks.”

While several of Romney's advisers led the United States into Iraq, it is clear that the United States has reached a post-9/11, post-Iraq stasis in its security policy toward the Middle East. Not even the most hawkish of hawks are suggesting a ground invasion into Iran.

Also, if Obama is taken at his word, a U.S. attack on Iran would be just as likely in a second Obama administration if sanctions fail to halt the Iranian nuclear program.

Syria

As Syria’s civil war rages, neither side has a plan to end the bloodshed. Indeed, Romney’s stated policy for Syria is almost identical to what the Obama administration has been carrying out.

At the VMI Romney said, “In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.” Reportedly, the CIA is already doing this.

Romney’s speech seems to suggest he supports the transfer of sophisticated antiaircraft weapons to the rebels, which would differ from the apparent Obama policy. However, rumors of downed MiG jets suggest such weapons are already reaching rebels, with or without U.S. support.

For the time being, both candidates reject directly arming the rebels and U.S. involvement in setting up safe zones or enforcing no-fly zones.

U.S. Relations with Regional Leaders

Both Romney and Obama would work to strengthen the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which became even more important following the fall of regional stalwart Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

This can be seen in the administration’s quiet backing off from the sort of calls for reform in Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Bahrain that featured prominently in the president’s main address on upheaval in the region. At VMI, Romney said he would “deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf.”

The two candidates differ, however, in their approaches to leaders of Israel and to the transitioning Arab states.

Israel is making a huge appearance in the campaign, and the candidates clearly have a different view of how to maintain that relationship. In Cairo, the president said his administration “will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs.”

Romney told Israel Hayom this summer, “If there were places where we disagree, I would hold these disagreements in private conversations, not in public forums.”

At the same time, there is a difference between frosty personal relations and “throwing Israel under the bus.” Obama surrogates note, rightly, that U.S. aid to Israel and military and intelligence relations are at all-time highs. The Romney camp points out, rightly, that most of the increased aid is part of a ten-year arrangement signed under the Bush administration.

However, in addition to continuing that aid, the Obama administration has provided even more support for Israel’s missile and rocket defenses, and, reportedly, the Obama administration provided Israel with the bunker-busting weapons it would need to attack the Iranian nuclear program—weapons the Bush administration refused to transfer.

Obama and Romney also disagree on the best way to work with the transitioning Arab governments to promote reforms and maintain U.S. interests.

In May 2011, Obama said the United States would stand for “core principles” in the region and support the “universal rights” of free speech, peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, equality for men and women, and the right of the people of the region to choose their own leaders.

The administration, however, has fought congressional attempts to withhold U.S. aid if states are not protecting these values. Following the September 11, 2012, riot at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the president put Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi on notice that more needed to be done to protect U.S. property and personnel, but he did not lay out consequences for inaction.

On the other hand, at VMI Romney declared that U.S. aid would be conditional on governments fulfilling the same “universal rights” that Obama spoke of as well as on their protecting U.S. missions.

Regarding Egypt, Romney said he would condition aid “to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel.” Last winter Congress placed similar conditions on U.S. aid to Egypt. In the spring, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waived these conditions and released the aid anyway

The Obama administration decided Egypt’s maintenance of the peace treaty was more important to U.S. interests than were internal conditions. Despite Romney’s pledge on conditionality, it is unclear whether his administration would—in the end—make a similar decision.

On major security issues in the Middle East, the policies of a second Obama term or Romney’s first would be quite similar, just as Obama’s first four years were more consistent with the second Bush administration than expected.

However, the candidates hold different views of how to relate to the region and how to promote U.S. interests with allies, adversaries and those in between.

Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @ZLGold.

Image: Cain and Todd Benson