from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

U.S. Foreign Policy: More Civilizing Missions?

November 1, 2012

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Apologies for the light blogging recently. I wish I had been able to be more active over the last three weeks, but an unfortunate injury to my left arm has kept me on the shelf.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in the world, what with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the presidential elections, the worsening (can it really get any worse?) situation in Syria, the emergence of an Egyptian constitution, a renewed Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, and the list goes on and on. Each of these topics deserves coverage, but I’d like to look back ten days to the presidential foreign policy debate.

Perhaps by now the topic is a bit stale, but when you are just beginning to rejoin the world like I am, the debate still seems relevant. I’ve been stuck on an oddly phrased statement that Gov. Mitt Romney made in response to Bob Schieffer’s first question about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Emphasizing the threat of extremism, the governor said: "We can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the--world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism..."

A few minutes later, Gov. Romney reiterated the point, declaring "...the key that we’re going to have to pursue is a--is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own."

I tweeted about it as soon as the governor made these statements.  What, after all does a "robust strategy" or "pathway" to get people to turn from extremism entail? First, let’s stipulate that extremism represents a threat to people in the Middle East, who are almost always its victims, as well as to Americans. Yet the way in which Gov. Romney portrays the circumstances, one would think that the Middle East is awash in al-Qaeda type violent extremism.  These extremists exist and they have certainly sought to take advantage of the Arab world’s shifting political environment, but it is clear that large numbers of Arabs reject al-Qaeda’s worldview.

Second, it’s probably unfair to expect Gov. Romney to be explicit about his approach to the Middle East in the context of the foreign policy debate, but the governor and his team have provided a fairly well-developed statement about the Middle East. Here is the relevant passage:

"Mitt Romney will make available technical assistance to governments and transitional bodies to promote democracy, good governance, and sound financial management. He will convene a summit that brings together world leaders, donor organizations, and young leaders of groups that espouse the principles of representative government, religious pluralism, economic opportunity, women’s and minority rights, and freedom of expression and conscience in the Arab world."

Good stuff.  Though perhaps it is because I have been paying attention to these issues for quite some time that Gov. Romney’s proposal sounds a lot like the late, but not-so-lamented Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Broader Middle East and North Africa Region, which came into being at a G8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia in June 2004. It proved to be wildly ineffective with little buy-in from Washington’s allies or the countries of the Middle East.

That was then and this is now. Mubarak is in jail, Qaddafi is dead, Ben Ali is in exile, and Assad is on the ropes, but there is very little reason to believe that new Arab leaders and their citizens will embrace grand international social engineering any more now than they did eight years ago. The uprisings in the Arab world are--in case anyone has not been paying attention--about national empowerment and dignity. Unlike Eastern and Central Europeans in the late 1980s who wanted to link up with the West, many in the Arab world are deeply distrustful of Westerners offering "pathways" to keep them from extremism. The United States and the West have an interest in the way debates over interpretations of Islam play out in the Middle East, but it is a fight that is up to Arabs themselves.

Lest anyone mistake this post as a partisan shot at Gov. Romney and the GOP, it isn’t. The Democrats have some of the very same "civilizing mission" impulses that actually are not terribly different in substance from what the Romney team is proposing in the Middle East.  I have met a lot of Middle Easterners who resent what seems to them to be an odd Western obsession with remaking the Middle East.  Its inevitable that the United States will be heavily involved in the Arab world, but both Republicans and Democrats should be careful before they insert themselves in other people’s debate over their identity and religion.


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