The cascade of protest movements that began in Tunisia and swept across the Middle East in 2011 has prompted tough questions for the presidential candidates as they consider the political fallout and plot U.S. engagement. Washington has long faced a tenuous balancing act in the region, weighing the interests of U.S. national security with the promotion of democratic values and human rights. Analysts say these tensions are likely to persist, if not grow, in the wake of the Arab Spring. This challenge came into sharp focus in September 2012 after mobs angry over an anti-Islam video stormed the U.S. embassy in Egypt, and in Libya, killed the U.S. ambassador and three other (NYT) members of his staff.
Despite divisions over particulars, Mitt Romney and President Obama have shared some broad policy responses to the historic upheavals transforming the region. Both men supported the U.S. intervention in Libya, though they differed on timing and mission execution. And both men support working with regional allies to isolate the Assad regime and support the Syrian opposition. A point of distinction, however, may be the weight each candidate gives to U.S. relations with Israel in considering their policies in the Arab world.
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Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden
In a highly-publicized speech in Cairo in June 2009, President Obama sought to initiate a general U.S. rapprochement with the Arab and Muslim world. "We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world," he said. "I have come here to Cairo seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition."
He went on to note the "controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years," much of it connected to the war in Iraq. He expressed support for democratic principles but added: "No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other."
In response to the cascade of protests across the Arab world in early 2011, President Obama delivered a speech in May in which he laid out his proposals for U.S. engagement with the Arab nations in political transition. Major elements of the plan included: $2 billion to fund private investment in the region, $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt, $1 billion in loan guarantees to Egypt for infrastructure and job creation, the launch of enterprise funds in Tunisia and Egypt to support small and mid-sized businesses, and the inauguration of a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership initiative in the Middle East.
President Obama has generally supported democratic reform in Arab states, but his policies have differed depending on the political context. The White House endorsed military force to protect Libyan civilians and tough economic sanctions against Syria, but has been more muted in its response to the protests and subsequent crackdown in Bahrain, a regional ally.
Obama defended his administration’s decision to join the NATO coalition in Libya against Muammar al-Qaddafi, saying the costs of intervention "cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right." The argument for action, he said, was a combination of "the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," the formation of international coalition, and the support of Arab countries.
In February 2012, President Obama called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer power without delay, saying "Assad has no right to lead Syria, and has lost all legitimacy with his people and the international community."
The White House supported the ill-fated UN-Arab League sponsored peace plan, but Western diplomatic efforts at ousting Assad have been repeatedly thwarted in the UN Security Council by Russia and China. In August 2012, the Obama administration formed a working group with Turkey in order to coordinate non-lethal support for the Syrian opposition and contingency planning.
In September, Obama remarked on the attack against the U.S. consulate in Libya, noting that throughout the Libyan revolution, U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens "selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi." In a 60 Minutes interview in September, Obama confirmed his support for evolving democracies in the Middle East despite recent chaos and crises, saying, "I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy, universal rights, a notion that people have to be able to participate in their own governance."
In his annual address to the UN General Assembly in September, Obama addressed the anti-Islam film that sparked the protests, saying that freedom of speech was the core of democracy but that hateful speech did not justify violence. "The events of the last two weeks speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab World moving to democracy," he said. "Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad."
In the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 22, Obama repeated his belief that the United States standing on the side of democracy was the right thing to do regarding the Egyptian revolution, but said that the country will have to meet certain criteria, like supporting women’s rights and respecting its peace treaty with Israel, in order to receive continued support.
Obama also said that the United States will do "everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition," in Syria, while also ensuring that weapons don’t get into "the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region."
Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan
Mitt Romney hailed the Arab Spring as an "opportunity for profoundly positive change," but also warned of a potential opening for U.S. adversaries--namely Iran and jihadist groups--to push for greater sway in the region. "A Romney administration will pursue a strategy of supporting groups and governments across the Middle East to advance the values of representative government, economic opportunity, and human rights, and opposing any extension of Iranian or jihadist influence," says the campaign website. "The Romney administration will strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab Winter." This strategy would include the provision of "technical assistance to governments and transitional bodies to promote democracy, good governance, and sound financial management."
Mitt Romney criticized the Obama administration (WashTimes) for "an Arab Spring, which is out of control in some respects because the president was not as strong as he needed to be in encouraging our friends to move toward representative forms of government." He advocates organizing diplomatic and assistance efforts in the Middle East under a regional director with a unified budgetary and directive authority.
Mitt Romney was critical of the Obama administration’s actions with regard to Libya (ABC). In a March 2011 radio interview, Romney issued support for the U.S. mission, but suggested the White House had waited too long to act. "There’s no question but that [Obama’s] inability to have a clear and convincing foreign policy made him delegate to the United Nations and the Arab League a decision about [U.S.] involvement [in Libya]," he said. In April 2011, Romney condemned the Pentagon’s "mission creep and mission muddle," suggesting that White House had set itself up for a "massive strategic failure" by demanding the removal of Muammar al-Qaddafi (National Review).
In a February 22 debate, Romney touched on the crisis in Syria. "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," Romney said. He added that the United States should work with Saudi Arabia and Turkey "to say, you guys provide the kind of weaponry that’s needed to help the rebels inside Syria." On March 4, Romney said he was "not anxious" to use military action. "Syria is a far more serious military defender than was Libya," he said.
Following a massacre of civilians that is alleged to have been perpetrated by Syrian forces in late May 2012, Romney criticized President Obama’s inaction on the growing crisis. "The Annan ’peace’ plan--which President Obama still supports--has merely granted the Assad regime more time to execute its military onslaught," he said referring to a six-point peace plan drawn up by Kofi Annan. "The United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves." In August 2012, Romney said he would have the U.S. intervene militarily in Syria in order to prevent the spread of chemical weapons (AP)--a position shared by the White House.
As for Egypt, some of Romney’s specific policy statements have explicitly factored in U.S. relations with Israel. In a July 2012 speech, Romney said that if elected, he would make $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt conditional on the country’s maintaining a peace agreement with Israel. On 60 Minutes in September, Romney said that as president he would make civil rights for minorities another demand on Egypt if it wants to continue receiving U.S. aid.
Following the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya in September 2012, Romney criticized Obama’s response and said he was "outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi."
In a September op-ed, Romney discussed the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East and unrest surrounding an anti-Islam film made in the United States. "The Arab Spring presented an opportunity to help move millions of people from oppression to freedom," he said. "But it also presented grave risks. We needed a strategy for success, but the president offered none. And now he seeks to downplay the significance of the calamities of the past few weeks."
In a major speech on foreign policy in October, Romney said on Syria that he would "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."
In the second presidential debate, held on October 16, Romney continued his criticism of Obama’s handling of the consulate attack in Benghazi, which, he said, calls the president’s entire Middle East policy into question.
In the third presidential debate on October 22, Romney cited the Islamist takeover in northern Mali and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood-backed president in Egypt as examples of the "dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region." Romney also said that way to a successful foreign policy in the region is to persuade the Muslim world to reject extremism on its own.
With regards to Syria, Romney said the United States should work with partners and allies in the region to help the "responsible parties" organize themselves into a coalition. He also expressed support for arming opposition parties within Syria, with the caveat that the United States needs to make sure these weapons don’t get into the wrong hands.