Brief Thoughts on How Mitt Romney Should Approach the Middle East

by Reihan Salam

In light of Mitt Romney’s recent foreign policy address, which I found very sober and smart, I recommend reading Meghan O’Sullivan’s latest Bloomberg View column on the recent unrest in the Middle East. O’Sullivan, a veteran of the Bush administration, has a keen appreciation for the role of economic conditions in shaping the international security environment. And so she calls for a U.S. foreign policy that centers on improving economic outcomes in the region:

The U.S. can’t easily solve the unemployment problem in the Arab world or close the yawning gap between the skills of educated Arabs and the skills actually needed by employers. Nor can it provide the social justice — of which economics is only a part — that Arabs are looking to their new governments to deliver. But the U.S. can help.

First, it can consistently stand up for the American principles that are admired globally: political and economic liberty. It can also infuse the Middle East with economic advice, technical assistance, private-sector help and educational partnering. These are the U.S.’s comparative advantages. To some extent, this is already under way. The new $60 million Egyptian Enterprise Fund, which will provide support for small- and medium-sized Egyptian businesses, is a good start. So was a trip by more than 100 U.S. businessmen last month arranged by the embassy in Cairo.

But such programs need to occur on a larger scale that holds some prospect of tipping the wobbly trajectory of today to a definitively positive slope. Giving American business significant incentives to invest in Egypt, providing Egyptian products easy access to the U.S. marketplace, and offering significant aid and expertise contingent on policy reforms should be pillars of a strategy seeking to boost long-term Egyptian prospects.

Doing far more to help these new democracies thrive isn’t just in the interests of Arabs, who are deserving of a better future, but also of the U.S., which needs better partners in this part of the world.

O’Sullivan’s prescriptions illustrate the gap between Republican foreign policy mandarins and the party’s grassroots activists, many of whom would find the idea of offering more generous aid to Egypt distasteful. Yet her suggestion that aid be contingent on policy reforms might help neutralize these objections.

What I found most striking about O’Sullivan’s prescriptions, however, is the extent to which they are broadly aligned with Mitt Romney’s thinking about the region. Though widely (and unfairly) panned, Romney’s observation that “culture” has been a barrier to growth and development in the Middle East and North Africa is very much in tune with efforts to encourage entrepreneurship in the region. The rise of indigenous entrepreneurship and an aspirational middle class in the region is very likely to benefit the United States, as it will tend to undermine violent extremism. Vali Nasr’s Forces of Fortune was a meditation on this larger theme:

If the Middle East is to be properly integrated into the global economy, turn to democracy, give women their rights, embrace values that transcend cultural divides, and keep extremism at bay, then it too will have to be transformed by the capitalist revolution. The most decisive battle for the future in the region will not be the one over religion—in which, as we shall see, the tide has already turned against extremism. Nor will it be the growing battle over political rights, as hopeful as that is. The key struggle that will pave the way for the decisive defeat of extremism and to social liberalization will be the battle to free the markets. If that battle is won by private-sector business leaders and the rising middle class tied to them, then progress with political rights will follow.

If Mitt Romney is elected president, he would do well to build his foreign policy agenda around economic uplift not just in the United States but in conflict-ridden regions like the Middle East. 

Incidentally, Politico has an article by Josh Gerstein citing experts who have been critical of Romney’s foreign policy address. The following experts were cited:

James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations, a veteran of President Clinton’s National Security Council and co-author of American Unbound, a book sharply critical of the Bush foreign policy. Lindsay’s co-author was Ivo Daalder, a fellow veteran of the Clinton White House and a prominent foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign who currently serves on the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Lindsay’s government service was not mentioned in the article.

I should not that having served on President Clinton’s NSC doesn’t in itself tell us anything about Lindsay’s partisan allegiances. A better guide to Lindsay’s thinking is his published writing, e.g.,

[W]hile Romney hasn’t offered many specific foreign policy prescriptions, the ones he has offered look a lot like Obama’s. The governor sees the need to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, favors tougher sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and offers Syrian rebels kind words but no direct U.S. military support. In other words, current White House policy. The two significant foreign policy promises on which Romney does differ from Obama—spending far more on defense and punishing China as a currency manipulator—are also two vows that probably won’t last much past inauguration day. Dreams of bigger defense budgets clash with the cruel math of tax cuts and budget deficits, while common sense, or Chinese retaliation, will cool the current ardor for going toe-to-toe with Beijing on currency valuations.

This sounds quite reasonable to me.

Madeleine Albright is another one of the experts cited in the article. Albright, of course, is best known for having served as Secretary of State under President Clinton. To his credit, Gerstein did identity Albright as an Obama partisan. 

Steve Rosen is identified as a former senior official of AIPAC, and he criticizes Romney for not having outlined a more detailed and specific outline for how he might address the Syria crisis. This is indeed an important question, and it is odd that President Obama hasn’t been pressed on this question more aggressively. Gerstein does not cite the reasons Rosen left AIPAC, which might be of interest to readers. 

Gerstein did not mention any other experts.