The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Mitt Romney's oddly familiar foreign policy

Asa’ad AbuKhalil (aka Angry Arab) had a good piece on the fact that Walid Phares is advising Mitt Romney:

Phares’ first career began early in the Lebanese civil war of the 1975-1990 when he allied himself with the right-wing militias, armed and financed by Israel. In his official curriculum vitae, Phares describes himself as a writer and lawyer in Lebanon at this time but he was more and less than that. He assumed a political position in the hierarchy of the militias and founded a small Christian party in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

After General Michel Auon assumed the presidency of Lebanon in 1988, Phares joined the right-wing coalition known as the Lebanese Front, which consisted of various sectarian groupings and militia. The Front backed Gen. Auon in his struggles against the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad and the Muslims of Lebanon. Phares’s role was not small, according to Beirut newspaper accounts.. He served as vice chair of another front’s political leadership committee, headed by  a man named Etienne Saqr, whose Guardians of Cedar militia voiced the slogan “Kill a Palestinian and you shall enter Heaven.” (Saqr later moved to Israel, and then Cyprus.) The Front was also backed by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a bitter foe of the Syrians. It seems unlikely that Romney knew much about this chapter in Phares’ career when he tapped him as an advisor.

In all fairness, whatever the nutty Phares is doing for Romney, it seems like some pretty familiar people are also getting a word in. Mitt Romney gave his first foreign policy speech, on October 7 in North Carolina. It sounds eerily familiar to neo-conservative tropes. What’s the first item on his agenda, for example?

Today, I want you to join me in looking forward. Forward beyond that next Recognition Day, beyond Ring Weekend to four years from today, October 7th, 2015.

What kind of world will we be facing?

Will Iran be a fully activated nuclear weapons state, threatening its neighbors, dominating the world’s oil supply with a stranglehold on the Strait of Hormuz? In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world.

By 2015, will Israel be even more isolated by a hostile international community? Will those who seek Israel’s destruction feel emboldened by American ambivalence? Will Israel have been forced to fight yet another war to protect its citizens and its right to exist?

So first the telling sign of putting Israel as the number one issue, but soon you’ll recognize that the neo-cons are back with their old Project for the New American Century:

But I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world. 

God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers.  America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties. 

And then there more of this in the big picture for Romney:

When I look around the world, I see a handful of major forces that vie with America and free nations, to shape the world in an image of their choosing. These are not exclusively military threats.  Rather, they are determined, powerful forces that may threaten freedom, prosperity, and America’s national interests.

  • First, Islamic fundamentalism with which we have been at war since Sept. 11, 2001.
  • Second, the struggle in the greater Middle East between those who yearn for freedom, and those who seek to crush it.
  • The dangerous and destabilizing ripple effects of failed and failing states, from which terrorists may find safe haven.
  • The anti-American visions of regimes in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba—two of which are seeking nuclear weapons.
  • And these forces include rising nations with hidden and emerging aspirations, like China, determined to be a world superpower, and a resurgent Russia, led by a man who believes the Soviet Union was great, not evil.

Romney does however refrain from an all-out rejection of international fora like the UN (even if he does a drive-by on it). And he has some specific measures beyond “America rocks!”, such as creating an “Arab Spring Czar” — which I thought Obama already kind of did — and increasing US naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. And of course finding new ways to give stuff Israel, as all Republican candidates except Ron Paul do. This Reason piece from July is wrong to talk about a “collapse of the neo-con Republican consensus,” it’s alive and well — and as it states, Israel is at the core of this worldview.

As I’ve written here before, neo-conservatism as a foreign policy amounts to little more than a Likudnik pro-Israel stance; all the other policies derive from it, and like democracy promotion, are quickly dropped when not convenient. PNAC and the Clean Break document, written for Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli policymakers, played a central role on this, and that's why the policies in it are now mouthed by all the candidates. 

P.S. In all fairness it also has to be pointed out that Romney is not the only candidate taking advice from the neo-cons. Rick Perry is reportedly getting briefed by none other than Doug Feith. More info on all the candidates’ advisors here.

P.P.S. For a learned take on the intellectual history of neo-conservativism and its hijacking by the crowd obsessed with Israel, read this fine essay in n+1. Here on the important point of democracy promotion as a neo-conservative theme:

What about democracy? As with other elements of the neoconservative mythology, the image of neocons as ardent Wilsonian democracy promoters has been propagated by both supporters and opponents. If neoconservatives have claimed the mantle of “democracy” in order to portray themselves as idealistic do-gooders, their critics have often been happy to cede the point in order to convict the neocons of naivete—which seems to be considered the only unforgivable sin in Washington foreign policy circles. Critics of the Iraq war, in particular, were often reluctant to couch their opposition in explicitly moral terms for fear of appearing soft-headed or otherwise unserious. It seemed far more adult and politically palatable to suggest that the war was foolish than to suggest that it was wrong; in this way, the neocons’ opponents frequently colluded in portraying them as Wilsonian utopians in order to claim the mantle of hard-headed anti-utopianism for themselves.

In fact, there is little to suggest that democracy promotion has ever been at the heart of neooconservatism. The movement’s early programmatic statement, Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” was a call for defending friendly dictators against left-wing popular movements, a course that set the tone for neoconservative foreign policy through the end of the cold war. Once again the theoretical backbone of the argument was furnished by the totalitarian-authoritarian distinction; in practice, Kirkpatrick’s scheme largely collapsed into the distinction between unfriendly left-wing regimes, democratically elected or not, and friendly right-wing ones, no matter how brutal. In recent years democracy promotion has become a more explicit part of the neoconservative program, but one need only look at the Bush Administration’s handling of Egypt and Palestine to see how quickly democratic processes have been scuttled when they have threatened to bring undesirable parties into power. 

Even the recent and much-hyped “split” between American neocons and the Israeli right over democratization in the Arab world has been less substantial than meets the eye. The neocons were willing to throw their support to democratic protesters in Egypt once the writing was on the wall and Hosni Mubarak’s downfall was all but assured; it remains to be seen, though, how they will react if election results are not to their liking. Already, prominent neocons like Charles Krauthammer have suggested that the US’s top priority in Egypt should be keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of power by any means necessary.