Mitt Romney Doesn’t Understand the Arab Spring or Its Implications for America
As part of his argument that President Obama deserved an “F” on foreign policy, Mitt Romney recently said, “the Arab Spring has become the Arab Winter.”
This seasonal metaphor, with its implied freezing of the hopes of last year’s revolutions, has become widespread in recent months as Islamist parties have proven to be the strongest political force across the region, as the chaos in Egypt surrounding this weekend’s presidential elections has intensified, and as the bloody crackdown in Syria has continued, finally forcing the United Nations to suspend their monitoring mission.
But all of the talk of winter misses a more fundamental meaning of “Arab Spring,” a term originally coined in the West but which is now obscuring our collective understanding of what is occurring in the Middle East — and beyond, including in the United States.
“Spring” ought to imply not just a temporary seasonal warming, but more fundamentally an “upwelling” of waters now thawed after a long, autocratic winter.
Across the Middle East, these turbulent waters of change are continuing to stream ahead. It is as if the waters of the Nile, long held back by the Nasserite dam at Aswan — a dam originally built with Soviet aid but refurbished again and again with American assistance — suddenly escaped their banks and were transforming the surrounding desert.
Only this change has bubbled up from countless individual springs — unleashed at first by the baptism of fire of Mohamed Bouazizi — to become a tide of generational, technological, economic, and social change that has not only swept across the region, but also wide swaths of the globe. In the years ahead this tide will only grow stronger and more unpredictable.
Contrary to Romney’s critique, considering the speed at which this tide emerged, and the extreme constraints on our response, the Obama Administration’s policy towards the Arab Spring has been impressive on many levels.
In its initial stages, the Administration pursued a relatively cautious policy, respectful of the fact that change was being driven from the region. But as the extent of the flood became clear, the Administration wisely took key steps to mark the terrain:
We counseled Mubarak to abandon his sinking ship while pushing on his generals to throw him overboard at the moment of truth;
We kept Gaddafi from poisoning the well of change coming up from the people of Libya;
We encouraged key allies, like Jordan and Morocco, to build a raft of reform for themselves — even as other allies, like Bahrain and Yemen, have failed to heed that advice;
We articulated principles on democracy, human rights, and economic reform that all would be wise to follow; and utilized new tools, such as e-diplomacy and expanded public-private partnerships, to maximize our impact in a difficult budget environment.
All the while, we have also made considerable progress on key security threats, such as Iran’s nuclear program, for which the regime in Tehran is now paying a high price in international sanctions. President Obama also deserves credit not just for ordering the strike on Osama bin Laden but for prosecuting the War on Terror more vigorously and effectively than his predecessor.
But despite these successes, Mitt Romney is not entirely wrong: Our policy on the Arab Spring has at times been needlessly ineffective, particularly when it comes to our economic response to the crisis. What Romney conveniently passes over, however, is that his party is in large part responsible for this fact. Our economic response to the Arab Spring has been highly constrained both by partisan opposition, and by a foreign policy apparatus that is not equipped for this type of challenge. A Romney Administration would only make matters worst on both counts.
Indeed, the Republican foreign policy establishment — increasingly dominated by its Janus-like neoconservative and isolationist faces — has dumbed down our national conversation on the Middle East to be almost devoid of any nuance and overly focused on the military. They see the waters of change in the Middle East as if they were a mirage composed of only our best hopes — a tide of liberals like us — or our worst fears — a swamp of Islamists out to get us. But these waters are murky. They have brought up many forces that we barely know, and that cannot be engaged with military means.
Yet, as we seek to engage new actors across the region, we have been hindered by the fact that out traditional policy apparatus is not built to swim in this new tide. At a time when new forces in the region are fundamentally concerned with economic growth and dignity, our foreign policy apparatus is still built for a landscape made of desert sand. And our investments in this region are still overwhelmingly for desert warfare.
In 2011, we allocated approximately $4.7 billion on foreign military financing in the Middle East. This figure does not include the trillions of dollars — and incalculable cost in blood — that we have spent for more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our development and economic assistance to the region, in contrast, only totals approximately $1.5 billion. In Egypt, the figures are $1.3 billion for military aid, and $250 million for economic aid.
Given the new landscape, these ratios ought to be reversed — or at least more balanced. But in a Romney Administration they would only become more skewed as non-military foreign aid would be sacrificed on the false altar of debt reduction, even though it has almost no bearing at all on our national debt.
Yet, this over-emphasis on military means is reflective of a deeper myopia towards the region’s changing landscape.
Indeed, as the flood springs forth America’s collective eye remains mostly focused on two islands seemingly fixed in a sea of change: one in Iran that we hope gets washed over and one in Israel that we hope does not — even as the governments of both Iran and Israel ought to be as afraid as much of popular protests (in the form of a renewed Intifada or a renewed Green Movement) as they are of each other.
Meanwhile, the entire Gulf slumbers exposed in an obvious flood zone, hoping that their oil wealth can buy a dam strong enough to hold back the eventual deluge. This includes Saudi Arabia, where the 87-year-old King Abdullah presides over a kingdom increasingly wracked by economic, sectarian, and social divides — even as the sudden death of his hardline successor Prince Nayef raises the possibility of an eventual succession crisis.
And for the countries that have been swept over — Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya — our assistance has fallen short. While assistance — and broader economic engagement including American investment — would not be a panacea for the region’s many problems, it is a cost-effective way to impact developments on the ground and advance U.S. interests. Yet, much of what President Obama announced as aid to transition countries in his speech last May 19, 2011 speech about the Middle East has not been implemented.
This delay, however, has never been our policy.
In fact, the Administration has made providing assistance for the Arab Spring transition countries a priority. Rather, our slow response is mainly result of two interrelated reasons: First, our foreign policy bureaucracy and inter-agency process has become so inefficient that a quick response with anything but military means is practically impossible; second, with the exception of the Pentagon, our executive agencies are completely hamstrung by a short-sighted Congress. (Although events in the region, particularly the Egyptian government’s reckless behavior in persecuting American and Egyptian non-governmental organizations, has certainly slowed the process down as well.)
To be clear, this is not exclusively an issue of declining budgets, although that certainly has had an effect. The debt relief proposed by President Obama for Egypt — but still not implemented — required no new funds: It merely required authorization and re-allocation of existing funds (a process that took Congress nearly a year).
This penny-wise, pound-foolish and inflexible approach to the region is continuing during the current budget cycle, where the House Subcommittee for State and Foreign Operations failed to include in their appropriations mark-up the Administration’s proposal for a $770 regional Middle East Incentive Fund, which would allow a quicker response to new developments in the region, including the potential fall of the Assad regime. Indeed, while the debate about Syria is rightly focused on how best to remove Assad, we ignore at our own peril the fact that if Assad were to fall, we currently have no available money to respond to what would be a major geo-strategic shift. Although the Senate did later include the fund in their appropriations mark-up, its fate remains uncertain.
Yet, this dereliction of duty from Congress should not be surprising. With few exceptions, America’s Congress — and especially its Tea Party-dominated House — is fixed exclusively on our own shores, as if what happens abroad cannot impact Americans at home.
Indeed, the last time America had such an isolationist Congress was in the years preceding America’s entry into the Second World War. At the time, President Roosevelt admonished his era’s isolationists, “If your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the price of your garden hose.” His strategy was to “put out the fire in your neighbor’s house before your own house caught fire and burnt down.”
What was true in Roosevelt’s time is no less true in ours. But how are we going respond when our neighbors are not threatened by the fire of war, but by a tide of change? And how will we respond as our house faces our own version of the same tide?
As it now stands, our government is unprepared to face what is becoming a global flood. We have spent the last 70 years building and maintaining the finest military force the world has ever seen so that we never repeat the mistake of our pre-WWII isolationism. Yet, as our proud of our armed services that we all are, the reality is that for the challenge of this gathering flood, our military strength is starting to become reminiscent of the Maginot line — something that will help shape the battlefield but cannot possibly by itself contend with our fundamental challenges.
Rather than just continuing a military build-up, as Romney proposes, we need to revitalize and reform our entire public sector so that it can be as effective as our military. An effective government — across the range of its functions both foreign and domestic — is essential to confronting our most important challenges: maintaining a competitive economy, developing our human capital and physical infrastructure, and engaging with the international system to mitigate the effects of increasing instability. Yet, without the type of systemic reform that can only be can only be led by those who actually believe in the utility of government, we will have a difficult time meeting these challenges.
But the waters of change keep gathering. The line between foreign and domestic is an illusion. Like in the time of Roosevelt, our great oceans can’t protect us. The Arab Spring has gone global. And while the impact will vary based on local conditions, no one will remain dry.
Not in Syria, where one day soon the river of blood unleashed by the Assad gang will be washed away — albeit possibly in a tide of retribution.
Not in Russia, where Putin cowers in his Kremlin fearing that change in Damascus may spread to Moscow.
Not in China, whose leaders — despite their rise to the near pinnacle of global power — so fear their own people that during Egypt’s Revolution they blocked Chinese users from searching for the term “Egypt” on the Internet.
And this tide of change will not stop in America — where despite the obvious differences that come with being a democracy and in spite of all the right-wing howling about American exceptionalism — many of the themes of the Arab Spring from income inequality to crony capitalism to an increasingly incapable government resonate on the “American street.”
And now America’s election season is upon us. And the country faces a critical choice: Who will steer us through these perilous waters?
In many senses, President Obama understood the flood was coming — at home and abroad. The entire thrust of his presidency has been to strengthen America for a newly chaotic and competitive era — both in foreign policy, where he has emphasized rebuilding relationships and expanding our alliances for this new era, and in domestic policy, where he has emphasized building a “new foundation” based on increasing America’s competitiveness and enhancing its basic fairness.
In contrast, the Republican Party — though repeatedly claiming the mantra of reform — is anchored down by its fixed ideology, even as it has chosen a nominee who shifts aimlessly in the winds of public opinion.
But President Obama is not the Messiah: he simply cannot walk on water.
Unless we continue the reforms at home that the Republican Party has repeatedly stood against since 2008 — and unless as a key component of those reforms we re-vitalize our public sector itself — like having Noah but not letting him build an ark, America may soon find itself missing the boat.
Ari Ratner is a Truman Security Fellow.