Mitt Romney’s very strong speech on foreign affairs today to the VFW is noteworthy for many reasons, and one of the most striking is the time he spent talking about the Middle East. Among the few countries he discussed by name were Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Syria.
Romney presented a coherent criticism of Obama’s Middle East policy. First, he argued, the president abandons and criticizes friends such as Israel while engaging with enemies such as Syria and Iran. This has led to “shabby treatment” of Israel, especially at the United Nations, where “to the enthusiastic applause of Israel’s enemies, he spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem.” Romney argued that “the people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world. And the chorus of accusations, threats, and insults at the United Nations should never again include the voice of the president of the United States.”
The Obama desire for “engagement” also meant no reaction, said Romney, when the people of Iran in 2009 and of Syria in 2010 rose up against their oppressors. Those oppressed peoples “should hear the unequivocal voice of an American president affirming their right to be free” but instead the president “faltered when the Iranian people were looking for support in their struggle against the ayatollahs.”
#more#And he is faltering on the dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, Romney said, for “the regime in Tehran is drawing closer to developing a nuclear weapon” and the Obama administration is leaking “top-secret operations . . . even some involving covert action in Iran.” “There is no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear-weapons capability,” Romney added. He expressed grave doubts about the current P5+1 talks:
Yet for all the talks and conferences, all of the extensions and assurances, can anyone say we are farther from this danger now than four years ago? The same ayatollahs who each year mark a holiday by leading chants of “Death to America” are not going to be talked out of their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Romney then took a hard line: By saying that the danger is not an actual Iranian nuclear weapon but “nuclear-weapons capability,” he took a stance close to that of Israel. And he called for the “zero option” on Iranian enrichment:
The Iranian regime claims the right to enrich nuclear material for supposedly peaceful purposes. This claim is discredited by years of deception. A clear line must be drawn: There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, period.
Calling an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability a “catastrophic threat,” he pledged that, should Iran continue to move toward a nuclear weapon, “if I become commander-in-chief, I will use every means necessary to protect ourselves and the region, and to prevent the worst from happening while there is still time.” This language is less specific than his formulation in the South Carolina Republican debate last November. There, he said, “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” Presumably his campaign will now be asked whether he stands by what he said last year; and, presumably, the campaign will answer that he does.
He covered the Arab Spring too, arguing that we should be more forceful in setting conditions for aid to Egypt, which he called “the center of this historical drama.” The goal should be “a government that represents all Egyptians, maintains peace with Israel, and promotes peace throughout the region. The United States is willing to help Egypt support peace and prosperity, but we will not be complicit in oppression and instability.” No happy talk here.
Taken together, his criticisms represent a combination of idealism and realism: We need to be tougher in the face of threats, tougher with our enemies, more supportive of our friends, but also louder and more effective in supporting the demands for democracy and human rights. That Romney spent so much time on the Middle East reflect three calculations he must have made: The region is now at the center of threats to world peace, Obama has mishandled it not only badly but visibly badly, and the contrast between the Obama and Romney approaches will help move voters Romney’s way. The election is still more than three months away and events in the region move fast, but those look like good bets.