x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Hard to tell which Romney would run US foreign policy

Mitt Romney's reversals on policy, between the primaries and the general election, leaves doubt about how he would approach Middle Eastern issues.

Today is Election Day in the United States, and many people across the Middle East are contemplating what this region might expect from a second term for Barack Obama, or a first Romney administration.

The two candidates have profoundly different visions of domestic policy, but their positions on foreign policy are not as dramatically different.

In a second term, Mr Obama would likely continue the policy directions set in his first: by completing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, and reaching out to global players like Russia and China to improve cooperation on global security and economic issues.

In the Middle East there would be no reason to expect a dramatic shift under a re-elected Mr Obama. He tried and failed to jump-start the Arab-Israeli peace process in his first term, and would be unlikely to make another major effort in the second one.

Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made that less likely by bringing the far-right foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party into his own Likud party, presenting a hard front against any effort to restart the peace process.

Beyond Israel, the covert US drone war against Al Qaeda would continue and could spread beyond Yemen, to Libya and Mali.

The US military presence in the Arabian Gulf, designed to ensure the free flow of oil and gas, will endure. But the Gulf states should not take it for granted that the US has a long-term commitment to an expensive and dangerous military presence, particularly as the US becomes increasingly self-sufficient in the field of energy.

As for post-Arab Spring governments, such as those in Egypt and Tunisia, Mr Obama would continue to work with them to encourage economic growth, democratic transition, and commitment to geostrategic obligations.

Towards the GCC countries, a second Obama administration would continue to counsel gradual reform, without pressing strongly.

Managing policy towards Syria and Iran will be more challenging as the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear issue could provide unforeseen surprises. On Syria, Mr Obama would almost certainly continue the cautious approach of withholding direct US military action while providing other forms of support and pushing for more opposition unity. If he could make progress with President Vladimir Putin on global issues, Mr Obama might seek joint US-Russian leadership in bringing about a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis.

On Iran, Mr Obama argues that the current international sanctions are working and covert operations have already slowed the Iranian nuclear programme. He would continue to push for a breakthrough in the P5+1 talks and hope that heavy sanctions provide Iran with strong incentives to find a way out of its isolation.

In a second term, Mr Obama could afford a deal with Iran without risking his own re-election. However, if no negotiated breakthrough were achieved, there would be a high risk that Israel might force Obama's hand with a strike against Iranian facilities - with all that might entail in terms of regional fallout.

The likely direction of foreign policy under a Romney administration is harder to read. As a candidate Mr Romney has changed positions on foreign policy issues.

He spoke in strong neoconservative terms while seeking the Republican Party nomination, but has shifted to more centrist, cautious views as he bids for independent and centrist voters in the general election. Whether the centrist-pragmatist Mitt Romney or the right wing neocon Mitt Romney would govern as president remains an open question.

Mr Romney emphasises that US foreign policy should be built on overwhelming US power, and he has promised to spend an extra $2 trillion (Dh7.34 trillion) on further strengthening the military. He has also made strong statements towards Russia and China, indicating that his term would start off with an increase in bilateral tensions with those countries.

On the Middle East he has not staked out a position very different from that of Mr Obama. Mr Romney would proceed with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. And he would continue the covert and drone war against Al Qaeda, and would maintain America's commitment to Israel's security and US military deployments in the Gulf.

Even on Syria and Iran he has generally endorsed Mr Obama's cautious approach while vaguely suggesting that he would be tougher.

What is worrying is that Mr Romney would start off with poor relations with Russia and China; this could dramatically reduce the possibility of negotiated outcomes in the Iranian and Syrian crises.

The appointment of hawkish cabinet members or advisers also raises the risk that the US could respond belligerently to unpredictable developments in the region, thereby increasing the risk of conflict.

As the Middle East awaits the election result, there is much at stake. Some might wish for a Romney administration that they hope will be tougher on Iran and Syria, but the combative diplomacy and jingoism of a Romney administration also risks repeating the dangerous escalations of the George W Bush years.

A second Obama term might not be as exciting, but it might provide better outcomes for the stability and security of the region, and for its gradual political and economic progress.


Paul Salem is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut

On Twitter: @Paul_Salem