October 24, 2012

U.S. Middle East foreign policy needs upgrade

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Map: Syria and Iran
The third presidential debate in the United States’ race focused on foreign policy. In reality, there was no real debate. It was an argument between two candidates about which one of them would apply policies that are already in place better than the other. Granted that a sitting president would not want to challenge his own policy, it was Mitt Romney’s responsibility to offer a fresh paradigm.

However, Governor Romney was clearly out of his comfort zone when talking about foreign policy. Considering that two-thirds of the entire debate was devoted to the Middle East and the Islamic world, I expected an exciting and informative debate. However, I lost hope in hearing a substantive discussion of the Middle East policy when I heard Governor Romney say that, “Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea.” Even after years of teaching courses about the Middle East to young men and women who had just graduated high school, I cannot recall seeing so many errors in so short of a statement.

First, Romney seems to imply that Iran is isolated in the region (the Arab world), a common mistake. Iran is not an Arab country. the majority of Iranians are not ethnically Arab, and they do not speak Arabic. Their  connections to Arabic is the Arabic script they use to write their language, Persian, which is Indo-European. In fact, linguistically speaking, Persian is closer to English and other Germanic languages than it is to Arabic. Like the majority of Arabs, they are also Muslims. But even their religion is disputed by Arab Sunni puritans from Saudi Arabia who label them Shiite rafidis (rejecters of faith).

Second, Iran now has Iraq as a close ally--which is holding the rotating leadership of the Arab League. It also had deep economic, military, and political relations with Sudan since the 1990s. It recently upgraded its relations with Mauritania and Algeria. Even in the Gulf Region, Iran maintains special relations with the Sultanate of Oman.

Third, Iran and Syria share no borders. If Governor Romney were keeping up with the events of that region, he would have known of the administration’s criticism of Iraq’s government for allegedly allowing Iran to use its airspace to transfer weapons to Syria. If Iran had any shared borders with Syria, it would not have needed to use Iraq’s airspace to reach Syria. Deductive and inductive reasoning aside, Governor Romney should know the geography of a region so critical to U.S.’s interests, especially given that he sees Iran as the biggest threat to U.S. security.

Fourth, both Syria and Iran have direct access to the sea. Neither of them needs the other to get access to the sea. Parts of Syrian’s western border opens onto the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s south western border opens onto the Persian Gulf which leads to the Indian Ocean and to the waters beyond.

Criticizing Governor Romney for lack of knowledge about a critical region such as the Middle East does not absolve President Obama. Foreign policy cannot and should not be judged by the soundness of the opponent’s relative erudition about the subject. It ought to be judged by the absolute level of the challenge a region poses: the higher the challenge the higher the standard.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s current foreign policy in the Middle East, too, is not adapting quickly enough to the changes taking place in that part of the world. As a candidate five years ago, he promised to adopt new approaches to dealing with the Islamic world for example. With his first term in office ending in a couple of months, the U.S. is still entangled in wars, relying on sanctions, and depending on dictators to preserve its influence in the region. The U.S. foreign policy is still stuck in the Soviet Union Era. If re-elected, he ought to raise the standard. He ought to overhaul U.S. foreign policy before the “80’s asks for it back,” to paraphrase one of his "zingers."
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.


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