Mitt Romney’s gaffe-laden tour of Europe and the Middle East made for compelling viewing in the same way a car crash does.
In the Middle East, attention has understandably focused on his claim that Israeli culture is superior to Palestinian culture and that this superiority accounts for the Jewish state’s economic success. Palestinians dismissed the remark as racist. Back in the US many commentators wondered aloud how a president Romney could ever serve as an honest broker in future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (we will put to one side the question of how honest a broker the US has historically been).
Less thoroughly explored, but equally important, are Romney and the Republican party’s attitudes toward the Arab Spring. Will the GOP’s disquiet with the Arab world’s new and changing governments leave president Romney room to work with the region’s emerging political order? If Romney wins, is he even inclined to try?
These questions stem from comments Romney made to right-wing Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom a few days before travelling to the region. Hayom is owned by the billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolled a significant portion of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign and is now backing Romney. Adelson says he is willing to spend $100 million (Dh367 million) of his own money to defeat Barack Obama in November. He was at Romney’s side throughout the Middle East portion of last week’s trip.
Israel Hayom asked: “How do you view the Arab Spring and the way in which the US responded to the uprisings in those Arab states?”
Romney replied: “Clearly we’re disappointed in seeing Tunisia and Morocco elect Islamist governments. We’re very concerned in seeing the new leader in Egypt as an Islamist leader. It is our hope to move these nations toward a more modern view of the world and to not present a threat to their neighbours and to the other nations of the world.”
He went on to say that “the Arab Spring is not appropriately named”, and that it “has become a development of more concern”.
This critique of the Arab Spring is one heard frequently on the American right: the revolutions of 2011 led to regional instability, and Islamist governments represent “a threat to their neighbours”. If Obama had stood up for America’s friends when it mattered, Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali and Hosni Mubarak would still be in power today and the Middle East would be a calmer place, more favourable to both America and Israel.
One could dismiss this as simple pandering: Romney was speaking to a right-wing Israeli newspaper ahead of a trip to Israel and said what he figured the audience wanted to hear. It was also, however, what many Republicans wanted to hear, and that bodes ill for the future.
To be fair, Romney has not gone nearly as far as some of the candidates he defeated. At a debate in South Carolina late last year Gingrich said: “The degree to which the Arab Spring may become an anti-Christian spring bothers me.”
Rick Perry famously described Turkey’s government — the one often held up as an example of rule by democratically-minded Islamists — as “Islamic terrorists”.
Michele Bachmann said: “Barack Obama has laid the table for the Arab Spring by demonstrating weakness from the United States of America.” She went on to criticise him for failing to save Mubarak and other authoritarian Arab leaders.
Bachmann, of course, was never really a serious candidate for the presidency, but her remarks, delivered last fall, summarised the two most serious GOP critiques of Obama and the Arab Spring.
First: that the fall of Arab dictators has been bad for Israel and, therefore, was a bad thing in and of itself.
Second: that the US could and should have kept Mubarak in power. Its failure to do so has not only made the region more unstable, but sent a message to other Arab leaders that the US will not stand by them when it really matters.
It has never been clear to me what the American right thinks Obama ought to have done to keep Mubarak in power. One hears a lot of talk about ‘supporting our friends and long-time allies’, but when there are a million people in Tahrir Square, huge demonstrations breaking out in every part of the country and the military (whom Mubarak represented) is turning on the president it’s hard to see what any outside power can actually do.
For the moment, Romney urgently needs to avoid boxing himself in. If he does become president he is going to have to deal with a wide variety of governments around the region. Some of them will be Islamist, but that does not mean they have to be enemies. Unless, of course, he decides that they are.
Gordon Robison, a long-time Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.