The Arizona debate exposed both the paucity and cynical self-interest of Republican candidates’ Middle East policy
Remember that promise by Michele Bachmann to shut down the US embassy in Iran? Only to be informed that there was no embassy in Tehran to shut down. As the field for the Republican presidential nomination has been winnowed out, I assumed we would see more attention to facts, particularly when addressing the sensitive and volatile developments in the Middle East. I was wrong.
The Republican presidential debates are not just watched by Americans, but people all over the world. Iranians and Arabs will not recognize descriptions of their countries. In their opening statements, both Gingrich and Santorum felt an impulsive need to frame Arabs in a negative light, in need of Republican benevolence. Within seconds of stating his name, Santorum declared that “the Middle East is in flames.” Is it really? And then came “I am Newt Gingrich and I’ve developed a program for American energy so no future president will ever bow to a Saudi king again.”
After such conciliatory and productive opening statements, when asked by CNN’s John King later in the debate about the videos (of killings) coming out of Syria and whether there should be US intervention or not, Santorum used the opportunity to return to Bachmann’s theme of Iran-bashing.
“Syria is a puppet state of Iran. They are a threat not just to Israel, but they have been a complete destabilizing force within Lebanon, which is another problem for Israel and Hezbollah. They are a country that we can do no worse than the leadership in Syria today, which is not the case, and some of the other countries that we readily got ourselves involved in.
“So it’s sort of remarkable to me we would have – here again, it’s – I think it’s the timidness [sic] of this president in dealing with the Iranian threat, because Syria and Iran is an axis. And the president … while he couldn’t reach out deliberately to Iran but did reach out immediately to Syria and established an embassy there. And the only reason he removed that embassy was because it was threatened of being … of being overtaken, not because he was objecting to what was going on in Syria.
“This president has … has obviously a very big problem in standing up to the Iranians in any form. If this would have been any other country, given what was going on and the mass murders that we’re seeing there, this president would have quickly and – joined the international community, which is calling for his ouster and the stop of this, but he’s not. He’s not. Because he’s afraid to stand up to Iran.
“He opposed the sanctions in Iran against the … against the central banks, until his own party finally said, ‘You’re killing us. Please support these sanctions.’
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a president who isn’t going to stop them. He isn’t going to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon. We need a new president or we are going to have a cataclysmic situation with a … a power that is the most prolific proliferator of terror in the world that will be able to do so with impunity because they will have a nuclear weapon to protect … protect them for whatever they do. It has to be stopped, and this president is not in a position to do that.”
EH: So, no sympathy for the plight of Syrians in Homs, or empathy for Arabs living under dictatorship. Instead, Santorum approaches the conflict with an Israel-centric bias, which wishes to weaken Iran by regime change in Syria. Santorum continued to accuse Obama of being afraid to confront Iran’s nuclear threat, while failing to offer any credible options as to how the US and its allies can stop Iran’s alleged weapons development program. Bombing Iran merely delays the bomb; it does not stop it.
When Gingrich was asked the same question on Syria, he too pressed the Iran button.
“Well, the first thing I’d do, across the board for the entire region, is create a very dramatic American energy policy of opening up federal lands and opening up offshore drilling, replacing the EPA.
“We … the Iranians have been practising closing the Strait of Hormuz, which has one out of every five barrels of oil in the world going through it. We have enough energy in the United States that we would be the largest producer of oil in the world by the end of this decade. We would be capable of saying to the Middle East, ‘We frankly don’t care what you do. The Chinese have a big problem because you ain’t going to have any oil.’
“But we would not have to be directly engaged. That’s a very different question.
“But, first of all, you’ve got to set the stage, I think, here to not be afraid of what might happen in the region.
“Second, we clearly should have our allies – this is an old-fashioned word – we have have our allies covertly helping destroy the Assad regime. There are plenty of Arab-speaking groups that would be quite happy. There are lots of weapons available in the Middle East.
“And I agree with … with Senator Santorum’s point. This is an administration which, as long as you’re America’s enemy, you’re safe.
“You know, the only people you’ve got to worry about is if you’re an American ally.”
EH: Having huffed and puffed on Iran, Gingrich had nothing different to say on the question of Syria other than what the Obama administration is already doing – despite his express contempt for it. Like them, he does not want military intervention nor arming the opposition with US weapons, preferring local countries to take a lead in Syria.
And what of Romney?
“I agree with both these gentlemen. It’s very interesting that you’re seeing, on the Republican platform, a very strong commitment to say we’re going to say no to Iran. It’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.
“And … and Rick is absolutely right. Syria is their key ally. It’s their only ally in the Arab world. It is also their route to the sea. Syria provides a … a shadow over Lebanon. Syria is providing the armament of Hezbollah in Lebanon that, of course, threatens Israel, our friend and ally.
“We have very bad news that’s come from the Middle East over the past several months, a lot of it in part because of the feckless leadership of our president.
“But one little piece of good news, and that is the key ally of Iran, Syria, is … has a leader that’s in real trouble. And we ought to grab a hold of that like it’s the best thing we’ve ever seen.
“There’s things that are … we’re having a hard time getting our hands around, like, what’s happening in Egypt. But in Syria, with Assad in trouble, we need to communicate to the Allawites, his friends, his ethnic group, to say, look, you have a future if you’ll abandon that guy Assad.
“We need to work with … with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey to say, you guys provide the kind of weaponry that’s needed to help the rebels inside Syria. This is a critical time for us.
“If we can turn Syria and Lebanon away from Iran, we finally have the capacity to get Iran to pull back. And we could, at that point, with crippling sanctions and a very clear statement that military action is an action that will be taken if they pursue nuclear weaponry, that could change the course of world history.”
EH: The former governor of Massachusetts reinforced Santorum’s and Gingrich’s focus on Iran, but even seems convinced that a policy of crippling Syria and Lebanon, combined with sanctions on Iran, will be so successful as to alter “the course of world history”.
I am staggered by this kind of talk from the panel, and the applause that these men receive. They conveniently forget that the one Arab country to whose internal affairs Iran has direct access, where it helps appoint or may topple the government, is Iraq – an oil-producing nation, which the decisions of the last Republican president, George W Bush, helped deliver to the bosoms of Iran’s rulers. Perhaps only Ron Paul’s constant refrain of isolationism comes near acknowledging past Republican foreign policy failures.
“You know, I … I’ve tried the moral argument. I’ve tried the constitutional argument on these issues. And they don’t … they don’t go so well. But there … there’s an economic argument, as well.
“As a matter of fact, al-Qaida has had a plan to bog us down in the Middle East and bankrupt this country. That’s exactly what they’re doing. We’ve spent $4tn of debt in the last 10 years being bogged down in the Middle East.
“The neoconservatives who now want us to be in Syria, want us to go to Iran, have another war, and we don’t have the money. We’re already … today, gasoline hit $6 a gallon in Florida. And we don’t have the money.
“So, I don’t believe I’m going to get the conversion on the moral and the constitutional arguments in the near future. But I’ll tell you what, I’m going to win this argument for economic reasons. Just remember, when the Soviets left, they left not because we had to fight them. They left because they bankrupted this country – and we better wake up, because that is what we’re doing here. We’re destroying our currency and we have a financial crisis on our hands.”
EH: But the Republicans’ failure to understand the modern Middle East is deeper. They are deeply out of touch with events on the ground, and their failure to grasp Arab sentiments could not be more visible.
To date, not a single Republican candidate has spoken warmly of Arabs and congratulated them for seeking freedom and democracy, nor dedicated US support for and solidarity with the Arab uprisings. Instead, they continue to view the Arab world through outmoded lenses. The stirrings in Arab streets are about dignity, freedom, jobs, healthcare, housing and transparent government. But the Republican contenders continue to view the Middle East through four prisms: Israel’s security, Iranian nuclear ambitions, oil supplies to America, and countering terrorism. This mismatch between understanding reality in the region and the misplaced priorities among Republican contenders leads to the gap in knowledge and flawed analysis only too apparent in this debate.
As the GOP race narrows towards the nomination, the Middle East will be looking more closely at the statements of Republican presidential hopefuls. It is still not too late to learn about the Middle East for what it is, rather than what Republicans think it is. Obsessing with bombing Iran is not a solution: being less of an embarrassment and a liability to Iran’s opposition could be more helpful. That way, when the mullahs may fall, Iranian democrats will want to be allies of the west.