Third Presidential Debate: On Foreign Policy, Romney has a Serious Syria Problem

Mitt Romney seeks to provide weapons to the enemies of Israel and doom the Jewish state to a conflict with a well-armed Arab neighbor in the near future, at least that is what his latest foreign policy shift is outlining.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

As has been mentioned here on PolicyMic, Mitt Romney would have us believe he is the presidential candidate who advocates the greatest support for Israel. During a recent speech given at the Virginia Military Institute, however, Romney vowed to offer military support to the Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime throughout the country. History has shown, though, that arming rebels can have serious negative consequences in the future, in this case especially for neighboring Israel.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. used covert CIA operatives to supply the Afghan mujahideen (Islamic resistance warriors) with modern weapons in their fight against their secular, communist adversary. Following the decade-long fight for independence from Soviet rule, many members of the Afghan resistance formed a fanatical group, one part political faction, two parts violent militia, that became known as the Taliban (students). The Taliban usurped control over Afghanistan, provided a haven for Osama bin Laden to plan his deadly global acts of terrorism, and protected him using military hardware supplied by America in the 1980s.

The various Syrian rebel groups, from the Free Syrian Army on down, are not the prototypical mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan, but they are not their antithesis either. As was the case thirty years ago in Afghanistan, the resistance movement has tremendous things to worry about now, and in the short-term it is reasonable to want to try and help them achieve victory. Afterall, the Syrian government has waged a massive war against its own people, taking the moral low-road all along and attempting to smash any and all opposition with the utmost brutality, even more so than the Soviets did in Afghanistan.

But like Afghanistan in hindsight, arming that opposition is not necessarily the greatest solution. Romney has repeatedly criticized Obama for not playing a stronger role in guiding the Arab Spring in a more pro-U.S. direction, but his answer of militarily strengthening militias would create more problems than it would solve. Imagine for a moment that we had provided arms to Libyan rebels in their contentious fight against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Now imagine if the armed militias involved in storming the U.S. embassy in Benghazi had tanks and helicopters and state-of-the-art surface-to-air missiles. Indeed, the weak Libyan central authority, with cordial ties to the U.S., would find it significantly more difficult to bring Ambassador Chris Stevens’ murderers to justice.

Not too long ago, conservative fans of Israel rejected the Arab Spring, claiming it was fostering Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East and had the potential to turn pro-Western regimes into ravenous anti-Israel hotbeds. In the case of Syria, whose leadership antagonized Israel at every turn throughout the course of its tenure, the desire for Israelis and Americans to think that the enemy of my enemy is my friend must be strong. 

Although those conservative concerns regarding the Arab Spring were not totally unfounded, we should not be so quick to buy into regional civil conflicts by supplying military hardware to semi-organized partisans. In much of the Middle East, Islamic political parties are benefiting from their newfound freedoms of expression and organization. As proponents of democracy, we should support this transition, so long as it remains both relatively peaceful and moderate. That does not, however, mean we should hand over highly advanced weaponry to newly-formed revolutionary organizations whose views of Israel presumably border between unfavorable and irrational hostility. It is imperative that our leaders learn from the mistakes of our past for the sake of Israeli security and our own.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

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Daniel Bender

Daniel received his BA in International Affairs from the George Washington University in 2009. He has traveled extensively throughout India, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey and his academic and writing interests include Middle Eastern politics, geography, philosophy, and history.

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