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Two Distinct(ly Similar) Choices

On Middle Eastern affairs, the presidential candidates hardly differ

By Eric T. Justin

Election season is that special time when, all across America, families and friends parrot party rhetoric instead of discussing the weather, and then Ohio elects the next president.

Among the timeless traditions of presidential election season is arguing that the opposing candidate is a neophyte on politics in the Middle East. As we saw in last Monday’s final presidential debate, President Obama and Mitt Romney are desperately and vainly trying to persuade voters that they offer two distinct choices for America’s foreign policy agenda. However, when it comes to relations with the Middle East, the distinction between them is practically nil.

Let’s briefly run through their positions on policy with the region’s most important countries.

In line with the world’s myopic fascination with Israel and the Palestinian territories, we’ll start there. Given Israel’s current domestic governing bloc, the total fragmentation of Palestinian governance in the West Bank, and the fact that Gaza’s elected government, Hamas, is committed to Israel’s destruction, Palestine would require significant development in the next four years for negotiations to be remotely possible or worthwhile. Sure, Romney would be quicker than Obama to praise Israel, but on actual policy, their positions would necessarily be remarkably similar.

Moving west, regardless of whether or not the Obama administration deliberately misled the public on last month’s attack in Benghazi, American foreign policy in Libya under either candidate would continue to awkwardly balance oil and security interests with humanitarian interests. Ditto for the rest of North Africa and the Gulf. During Monday’s debate, Romney even explicitly approved of Obama’s handling of the outbreak of revolution in Egypt.

Onward to Syria. Romney calls for American funds to arm Syrian militias that “share our values” and for the transfer of heavier weapons to those militias. Romney’s failure to specify what he means by heavier weapons or how we would locate groups with our values convinces me that these assertions are nothing more than campaign rhetoric. Like Obama in 2009, Romney in 2013 would similarly adopt positions more in line with the status quo than his campaign promises suggest.

When Vice President Joe Biden stopped chortling at the recent vice presidential debate, he and Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan engaged in a serious debate about the Obama administration’s handling of Iran’s nuclear weapons development. However, during the last presidential debate, Romney appeared much less critical of the administration’s efforts over the last four years. In fact, Romney could only vaguely promise “tightening sanctions” and “diplomatic isolation,” which are two approaches Obama and his administration likely already explored.

In a speech last month, Romney asserted, “When we look at the Middle East today—Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, with the conflict in Syria threatening to destabilize the region, with violent extremists on the march…it is clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office.” Of course, he is right, but one can hardly blame the president for that reality, nor can Romney make a convincing case that the region would look differently had he been in office instead of Obama.

Admittedly, my country-by-country analysis may have sacrificed depth for breadth, but the point is that, even in the details, Obama and Romney’s policy prescriptions for the Middle East only differ by the platter they are presented on. Devoted to that platter more than the substance that rests on it, many Democrats and Republicans are deeply uncomfortable with the vast similarities between Obama and Romney’s platforms for foreign policy in the Middle East.

If the president’s record over the last four years has taught us anything, it is that campaign rhetoric rarely translates into policy. Since election season seems to endow Americans with selective hearing and collective amnesia, let us recall Obama’s plans four years ago.

Obama took office with many aspirations for the Middle East that were at best naïve—and more likely foolhardy. Direct negotiations to pacify Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Not quite. Force Israel and Fatah back to the negotiating table? Never mind. Normalization of relations with Syria as a path to peace in Palestine? Yikes. Immediate closure of Guantanamo Bay? LOL.

Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East today is not reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s, as Republicans sometimes suggest, but nor is it similar to the foreign policy Obama promised during his 2008 campaign. Don’t tell a party demagogue from either side, but it is largely an extension of the foreign policy built by the Bush administration.

Some of my friends, especially Jewish Americans and Arab Americans, describe themselves as “single issue voters,” in reference to Middle Eastern affairs. I would recommend that they find another issue to base their votes on in this election.

Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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