Don't laugh at a funeral or cry at a wedding
It is already clear that M. Romney failed to capitalize on the blunders suffered by Obama's Administration in the Middle East, including the recent spill of rage against the US across the Muslim world. Pew Center polls indicate that 45% in the US approve and 36% - disapprove of how Obama handled the crisis, while Romney's response drew 26% approval and 48% disapproval.
According to the Wall Street Journal, even Republican notables - Sen. John Sununu, R. Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan, and John McCain's campaign adviser John Weaver - criticized Romney over his reaction. Romney, for example, seemed upset that the US embassy in Cairo appealed for religious tolerance in connection with the movie ahead of September 11, that is, before the tragic deaths of the US ambassador and three embassy staff members in Benghazi. Romney said: «They clearly sent mixed messages to the world» and practically accused the incumbent of appeasing Islamic extremists. «Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,» retorted Obama who also stressed that Romney was politicizing the national tragedy. LA Times columnist D. Horsey described Romney's statements in the context as «foolish, simple political rhetoric». In a sense, Romney acted like the lore character who wept at a wedding and then, in an attempt to conform to the people's expectations, laughed at a funeral. No wonder, he got beaten both times.
The Americans' enviable trait of behavior is that they do not easily crack under pressure. Rather, Americans must be credited with becoming more united and backing their leaders once trouble comes, as on September 11, 2001 when the US Administration looked fairly helpless but the public support for President Bush skyrocketed. On a smaller scale, a similar process is underway at the moment.
Still, Obama has no reasons for absolute self-confidence. Americans naturally feel hurt and insulted that ambassador C. Stevens, a de facto father of the Libyan revolution, fell victim to mob violence. They are also mindful that Obama initiated the gradual withdrawal of the US troops out of Iraq and will get them out of Afghanistan, the wars in both countries – started by the Republican Administration, importantly - being extremely unpopular. Still, Obama will have to shoulder most of the responsibility for the current failure of the US Middle Eastern policy, and the pullouts from Iraq and Afghanistan look as if the US forces simply have to flee, while it is unclear what kind of result has been achieved. The gains scored in the Afghan campaign are essentially symbolic, the main one being that Usama bin Laden is finally dead. «Ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago,» a prominent Democrat said at the Party's national convention, cheering up the crowd.
Romney's chief policy advisers Eliot Cohen and Richard Williamson, two former high-ranking Department of State officials under Republican Administrations, spoke of what had happened in Libya with greater caution and admitted that the attack on the US consulate was hard to predict or prevent. They added that the US should do more than the current Democratic Administration does to build the new Libya and elaborated on the differences between Obama and Romney in Middle Eastern affairs. They made it clear, for example, that the waiver of Libya's debt of $1b, announced by US Secretary of State H. Clinton, would only become possible if the US interests are treated with greater respect in the country. Besides, Romney would provide much stronger support for the opposition in Syria, including assistance in obtaining weapons from other Arab countries but stopping short of directly arming those who fight against Damascus. Whereas Obama is wary of Israeli premier B. Netanyahu's plan to set up a «red line» for the Iranian nuclear program, the point being that a military strike should follow immediately if the line is crossed, Romney is open to the idea but would probably define a higher barrier for the action.
The candidates compete over the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, an issue that, for the US, has a considerable domestic dimension. There is no doubt that, like any other US president, Obama is strategically committed to the security of Israel. Regardless of the raging crisis, in 2011 the US Administration spent $3b – the highest amount since 2003 - on the support of Israel. Romney intended to visit Israel in July, 2012, with the goal of selling to the influential Jewish constituency in the US his candidacy as that of Israel's main defender, but, ahead of the tour, Obama took serious steps to wrestle the initiative from his rival. Obama signed a piece of legislation meant to strengthen the US-Israeli ties and pledged an extra $70b to help Tel Aviv develop the Iron Dome anti-missile complex. On the other hand, Obama does not believe that the Palestinians' situation must stay unchanged. He favors talks which are to culminate in a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, plus the return to the 1967 border with some mutually acceptable territorial swaps. The resolution of the top-contentious issues - the return of millions of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem – may, in Obama's view, be delayed till the final phase of the negotiations. Enthusiasts tried to have the Democratic convention insert the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel into the presidential program, but Obama's inner circle turned down the initiative.
It should be taken into account still that the US objections were the key reason why the Palestinian statehood bid was rejected in the UN. Obama held that the Palestinian aspirations were premature and posed a threat to the negotiating process.
Obama and Netanyahu evidently do not get along and have difficulty concealing it, though the US President said he would surely visit Israel if re-elected. Netanyahu's easily readable message to the US Jewish community is that he would rather talk to Romney.
Quite a few circumstances factor into the situation. Obama's term in office was just beginning when his team members, particularly Rahm Emanuel, an Israeli-American with a record of service in the Israeli army during the 1991 Gulf War and the White House chief of staff later on, made serious efforts to engage with the traditionally conservative US Jewish community. Among other steps, J-Street, a compromise-oriented alternative to the hardline AIPAC, was established and it soon became visible that many of the Jewish Americans were tired of the endless Middle Eastern conflict and aware that concessions could not be avoided. As of today, surveys show that the Jewish community in the US shares the perceptions of the rest of the population and, regardless of Romney's appeals, say Obama reacted better than Romney to the Middle Eastern escalation.
Romney's position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is indeed surprising. He markedly tries to be holier than the Pope – or the chief rabbi – whenever the issue comes into the spotlight. Israel was the fist country Romney went to as the presidential hopeful, and, while in it, said that Jerusalem should be the Israeli capital and that he would transfer the US embassy to it from Tel Aviv if he wins the presidential race. Romney vocally opposes themoratorium on the construction of Jewish settlements on the occupied territories and calls for reducing the level of financial support made available to the Palestinians. At some point, Romney actually said that no peace deal is possible as «the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace". A president with such views will hardly be able to promote normalcy in the region. For the US, the approach may lead to even deeper hostilities with the Arab world and to complete regional isolation. Israel will not benefit either, considering that its geopolitical vulnerability would automatically go up under the circumstances. Netanyahu's explicit advocacy in favor of Romney would possibly tell on the US-Israeli relations if Obama wins.
Saudi Arabia's official media, which are, as a general rule, loyal to Washington, remark that Romney sees the Palestinians only as an obstacle in the way of his esteemed Israeli partners (http://www.saudigazette.com.sa).
By the way, Egyptian president M. Morsi expressed the view on September 23, during his first presidential tour of the US, that the backing of Israel and various authoritarian regimes has done the US no good. «Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region», said Morsi, suggesting that Washington should seriously advance the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem to improve the US image worldwide.
* * *
Obama's current advantages over Romney in what concerns the Middle Eastern affairs can evaporate overnight if a major provocation takes place, and there is no shortage of the forces to pull off one. Given a new occasion, Romney will probably seize the arising opportunities in a more convincing manner. Anyhow, the «democratization» of the Middle East is sure to remain on the list of priorities in the White House, and that spells new rounds of troubles for the region.