Nov 16th 2011

Republicans Debate Foreign Policy

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

This Presidential election couldn't have come at a worse time for America and the Arab World. Since candidates are more focused on politics than on sound policy, critical issues will not receive the thoughtfulness they require. And so instead of addressing and working creatively to resolve a number of crises that are coming to a head across the Arab region, Washington will spend the election season pandering and politicking, making things worse, while rendering America increasingly isolated and powerless to have a positive impact in a rapidly changing Arab World.

This behavior is, of course, not limited to U.S. policy in the Middle East. This same nasty and unproductive bickering has harmed our ability to address and resolve serious domestic challenges, as well: evidence Washington's near paralysis in attempting to come to a budget/deficit reduction compromise. But as harmful as nasty partisan politics can be in making it more difficult to solve problems at home, it has had an even more damaging impact on our ability to handle complicated matters of foreign policy. And there is nowhere in the world where the challenges are as great, the stakes are as high, and the costs of failure so dear, as they are across the Arab World today.

The realities that confront America in the Arab World at this time, include, but are not limited to: dramatic transformations in leadership in many countries, with still unsettled situations in many more; a newly empowered Arab public opinion, that now limits the ability of the U.S. to project American leadership, especially on matters not supported by Arab opinion; a fast approaching "point of no return" in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, where, owing largely to Israeli intransigence and voracious settlement expansion, has made achieving a peace settlement a near impossibility; an emboldened Iran, which now has a foothold in Iraq and a leadership that is exploiting anti-American sentiment to its advantage; and a deepening partisan divide at home, which has effectively tied the Administration's hands in the conduct of regional diplomacy, all the while infusing a damaging and dangerous anti-Muslim sentiment into the mainstream of U.S. political discourse.

With the date by which American forces are to be withdrawn from Iraq rapidly approaching, it stands as one of the great ironies of this new century, that the war that was designed and executed to project America's hegemony, instead left the U.S. weaker and less respected, and left the Middle East more volatile and less secure. It is this reality that the Obama Administration must confront as it faces real challenges with limited options. While the White House appears to recognize this state of affairs, it is clear that Republicans do not.

This weekend, the GOP's White House aspirants will debate foreign policy, and they will, no doubt, be in an attack mode, challenging the President's policies at every turn. From statements already issued by the leading Republican candidates it is clear that they will admit to no common ground with this White House in the conduct of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Instead they routinely taunt the White House for: its "weakness" in not confronting Iran; its lack of support for Israel; its failure to act more vigorously in Libya and Syria; and its decision to honor agreements reached during the last Administration to withdraw from Iraq.

Recent developments will only add fuel to this raging partisan fire. The revealing, but still inconclusive, IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program and Israel's renewed threats to launch a unilateral attack on Iran, has Republican's demanding that the Administration be more supportive of Israel and more directly confrontational with Iran.

The recent leaked conversation between Presidents Sarkozy and Obama, in which both men make clear their disdain for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, has Republicans not only demanding that Obama apologize to the Israeli leader, but that he also demand that his French counterpart apologize, as well.

Despite Arab concern that US performance in the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace has been unbalanced and a massive disappointment (especially after President Obama's patently pro-Israel political speech before the United Nations General Assembly), Republicans, playing to their "born again" base, have repeatedly chided the President for "betraying our only ally" or "throwing Israel under the bus".

The growing tragedy in Syria has prompted Republicans to upbraid Obama for failing to demonstrate leadership. Much like their calls for the Administration to be more aggressive in Libya, they are now demanding action against the Assad regime-despite the fact that no responsible player in Syria or the broader region has called for or would welcome such a U.S. role.

The GOP criticisms of the President are not reality-based, and if the policies they advocate were to be pursued, the results would have devastating long-term consequences for America and the Arab World.

What is so distressing in all of this is the degree to which the Republicans have failed to learn the lessons of Bush's failures. Not understanding how deep is the hole dug by the Bush Administration's recklessness, Republicans keep pushing Obama to pursue policies that would dig that hole deeper still.

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