x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

US politics fail to engage complex regional realities

Mitt Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican convention was light on detail about foreign policy.

What might a President Mitt Romney do in the Middle East? This question is difficult to answer because, even after his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Florida, few Americans can probably say with any confidence what Mr Romney might do in the United States, much less in foreign policy. Mr Romney has been light on detail in general; his brief discussion of foreign policy provides few answers.

Mr Romney has castigated President Barack Obama for insufficient action on Iran and for having thrown Israel "under the bus". But this is the wrong way around. It is on Israel that action, not words, are needed, and on Iran that more talk is needed. Mr Romney appears to be heedless of the chaos an attack on Iran would cause in the region. A nuclear-armed Iran will be bad, but another war would be catastrophic. It is the Middle East that would have to suffer the consequences.

The most concerning part of Mr Romney's attitude towards the Middle East is that he continues a pattern - too often, US policymakers do not seriously weigh the consequences of US power.

The experience of the United States in the Middle East is mixed. Sometimes, as over Iran's belligerence, US backing is vital for stability and security. Particularly on the Arabian Peninsula, the United States has worked with governments to pursue common aims. Combating terrorism in Yemen and piracy around Somalia are vital for regional stability.

Yet often the United States can seem like a distant, clumsy giant, blundering with enormous power into a region it barely understands, and often displaying little inclination to understand. Iraq is the most egregious example of this: the Middle East has paid a colossal price for that American adventure. The biggest burden has been felt by Iraqis themselves, but neighbouring countries will feel the effects of refugees, instability and militancy for years to come.

Often US policymakers do not lend the same careful examination of facts, context and consequences to their foreign policies as they do to domestic ones. The result has been a moribund Middle East peace process, and in some cases a destabilising influence, as seen in Pakistan.

A criticism of Mr Romney does not imply that Mr Obama has been faultless. His Cairo speech in 2009 was promising, but foreign policy has been strikingly unchanged. When Mr Obama speaks this week at the Democratic convention, he may offer a fresh vision. But in general, US presidents have seen the Middle East as a distant region neatly divided into allies and enemies, rather than the complex mosaic of people and politics in which we live.