x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Romney's tone is reminiscent of Bush's mistakes

The Middle East needs a responsible American role in regional affairs, not a US president who makes proclamations from afar.

The reach of the military of the United States and the size of its economy mean that, for much of the rest of the world, who wins the presidency matters. Of course, only Americans get to vote. But many people around the world will be listening carefully to what both contenders say.

That's what makes Republican candidate Mitt Romney's comments on foreign policy a subject of common interest and, in some quarters, common concern. The trouble for Mr Romney is that his foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday will make some of his allies nervous as well - and for good reason.

For all the bellicosity, in reality there is not much daylight between Mr Romney and Barack Obama on Middle East policy. Both want to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; both want to leave Afghanistan; both consider Israel an important ally; and both are willing to tackle anti-American militants, by extra-judicial means if necessary.

But there is a difference of tone, and tone matters. Too much of what Mr Romney said was phrased in the language of confrontation, channelling the belligerent stance of George W Bush's first term - language that, on Iraq, was soon followed by action with catastrophic results for that nation, the region and the United States itself.

When Mr Romney talks of American "leadership", what exactly does he mean? He castigates Mr Obama for "leading from behind" on Libya, ignoring that that approach led to the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi and the beginnings of a democratic Libya allied to the United States. Can the same be said of Iraq, where Mr Bush led from the front?

Mr Romney argued for the permanent presence of aircraft carriers in the region, although the 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain and US military bases across the region have the force option covered. Might is not lacking - a diplomatic and soft power strategy might bear better results in Tehran.

At this point in the US campaign season, it is little surprise that politicking leaves little room for a nuanced approach. But what is worrying is that the previous Republican administration followed Mr Bush's "you're with us or against us" rhetoric with an ill-conceived, ill-planned war. Mr Romney is surrounding himself with some of the same people who advised Mr Bush.

Mr Romney asserts that the world wants American leadership, but this brand of foreign policy has been tried before. The Middle East needs a responsible American role in regional affairs, one that understands the region and its people's aspirations, rather than just making proclamations from afar.