I rarely write about politics in this space, but I feel the need to weigh in on the recent violence in Egypt and Libya. As a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East, I was very disappointed to read Mitt Romney’s ill-timed and ill-considered comments during Tuesday’s attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions by raging mobs in Cairo and Benghazi. His appalling lack of judgment and chest-thumping approach to diplomacy in the region and around the world have understandably raised questions about Mitt’s temperament and judgment when it comes to foreign policy.
First of all, Mitt’s target was way off. While a hostile crowd was gathering nearby and threatening to storm its gates, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a brief statement on Tuesday condemning a silly anti-Muslim video made in California that had been widely viewed and condemned in Egypt. The embassy’s purpose in issuing the statement was obviously to calm things down and prevent an attack; not, as Mitt asserted, to express “sympathy” with the attackers. Equally puzzling was his statement that we need not apologize for American “values.” Since when is producing anti-Muslim videos an American value? You can respect the First Amendment all you want, but there’s no need to go to bat for an Islamophobic idiot – especially one whose bigotry has resulted in deadly violence.
I can’t remember the last time that a serious politician took advantage of a tragedy in the Middle East to bash a sitting president. As The Atlantic magazine points out, when Pres. Carter’s mission to rescue the Iranian hostages failed spectacularly, then-candidate Ronald Reagan had this to say: "This is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united." George H.W. Bush, campaigning at the time for the Republican nomination, also expressed his support: "I unequivocally support the president of the United States -- no ifs, ands or buts -- and it certainly is not a time to try to go one-up politically. He made a difficult, courageous decision." Similar comments would have made Mitt look more astute – and presidential.
History shows that angry fanatics in the Middle East are no respecters of politicians or political parties. Terrorists blew up the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut on President Reagan’s watch, and they blew up two American embassies during the Clinton administration. Moreover, presidents from both parties have been trying for decades to bring about a comprehensive peace in the region. They weren’t able to do it, and I’m betting that Mitt won’t be any more successful. The U.S. has been unpopular in the region for a long time, and it’s hard to see how a President Romney will change that dynamic.
Mitt’s aggressive approach to diplomacy is the one aspect of his candidacy that gives me pause. When it comes to campaigning versus governing, where a politician stands depends on where he sits. Earlier this year the former governor promised to get tough with China on trade. The truth is, as former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman explained, that once he’s in office Mitt would have to negotiate and compromise with Chinese leaders, just as his predecessors have done for 40 years. Ditto for his harsh stance on Russia. Sooner or later, a President Romney would have to meet with Putin and try to reach an accommodation with him. Granted, President Obama’s reset approach hasn’t worked, but I'm not too sure that the general proposals outlined on the Romney campaign's official website will, either. For now, all we hear is that we need "American leadership" abroad. No one doubts that, but without specifics, it's hard to judge whether Mitt's policies will be any more effective than Obama's have been. What would Mitt have done differently in Egypt? Syria? Libya? If the proposals outlined on his campaign website are any indication, the answer is "not much."
When it comes to foreign policy, the Romney campaign is long on posturing and short on specific proposals for engaging with the world and solving its problems. General criticism of Obama’s foreign policy is to be expected, but is it too much to ask for Mitt to project a presidential demeanor when tragedy strikes abroad? Mitt still has my vote, but I do wish that he had kept his powder dry on this one.
I will be making presentations on Mormonism in Los Angeles at Sinai Temple (dialogue with Rabbi David Wolpe, Oct 18th @ 7:30 p.m.) and Temple Isaiah (dialogue with Rabbi Zoë Klein, Oct 24th @ 6:00 p.m.). The public is invited.