In the recent Las Vegas GOP debate, there was little real discussion about the Middle East. All of the candidates except for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) rushed to proclaim themselves the greatest defender of Israel, the greatest opponent of Iran, and the most serious about reconsidering the purported successes of American foreign aid. If the candidates want to take a real shot at President Barack Obama on foreign policy, they will have to go beyond pro-Israeli platitudes and Iran-bashing in order to lay out what would really differentiate them from the Obama administration. They need to dig deeper and answer questions about how they would deal with other issues in the region, such as their reaction to the Arab Spring.
Many of the candidates have been embarrassing in their lack of knowledge of the Middle East. Herman Cain, a man not known for his foreign policy experience, seemed to have misunderstood the Palestinian right of return. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) “blamed” Obama for being behind the Arab Spring and made unsubstantiated claims about Hezbollah setting up camps in Cuba. Former Senator Rick Santorum, in the last debate, was confused about the nature of the Iran-Contra deal under President Ronald Reagan. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was strongly for the no-fly zone in Libya before he was strongly against it.
Other candidates haven’t made gaffes, but some of their actions are questionable. Texas Governor Rick Perry made the claim that all Christians must support Israel. Frontrunner Mitt Romney hired Walid Phares as a foreign policy advisor. Phares is closely associated with Guardians of the Cedar, a banned Lebanese political party that is described by the State Department as “an extremist Christian group.”
Perhaps only Jon Huntsman and Paul have not made similar mistakes. Huntsman is well regarded for his foreign policy experience and Paul has been consistent in opposing U.S. intervention in the Middle East as well as his views on the allocation of U.S. foreign aid.
However, what even they have not done is explain what their administrations would do differently in response to the Arab Spring, among other issues. Being strongly in support of Israel and being tough on Iran are not enough of an answer. There are many important issues that are not being discussed.
For instance, would the candidates continue Obama’s use of drones in Yemen? Would they give unqualified support to the government of Bahrain or walk a thin line between demanding respect for human rights and supporting the government? Do they support Ambassador Robert Ford’s active role in Syria, or would they recall him? Additionally, what role would the U.S. play as some countries try to form new governments after decades spent under dictatorships?
These are all questions that should be asked because the answers will be important in showing how the candidates both view the world and America’s place in it. Although it is easy to fault a candidate for having spotty knowledge of some historical events, no serious candidate can be forgiven for not knowing how they would deal with significant regional issues.
What this comes down to is a question even more important than the now clichéd 3 am telephone call. Every candidate has stated that Obama is seriously lacking when it comes to his Middle East policy, a legitimate criticism. The real question is not a hypothetical question about hostages but a very real question about how to deal with the significant issues and how a new Republican president would handle them.
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