A new issue has popped up in the Presidential race. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the state of the U.S. economy. It is about a new world order that has removed familiar (and in some cases pro-American) leaders from strategically important Arab countries. And the next tricky chapter concerns what to do in war-torn Syria.
The challenges are familiar. A despotic regime uses its loyal military to maintain power. Its allies prop up a terrorist-friendly dictator. Various sectarian factions fight the government (and sometimes themselves) in an attempt to break free. Some Arab governments remain silent. Others seek to assist the rebels. Israel remains nervous; always the scapegoat (and target) for the alphabet soup of terrorist organizations in and around the Middle East.
The issue is front and center in the race for president because it places a major Obama priority in context, i.e., the foreign policy "reset" that was supposed to convince heretofore difficult regimes to like us.
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Further complicating matters is the recent terrorist strike on our embassy in Libya. A murdered ambassador and potential cover up as to the circumstances surrounding the attack have raised concerns about the resilience of al-Qaeda and its affiliates at a time the president is claiming the terror group is "on its heels."
In Syria, the Obama Administration will most likely continue to ignore the pleas of the rebels. Such is the modus operandi of a president who has ended U.S. military operations in Iraq, established a timetable for withdrawal in Afghanistan, and happily led from behind in the liberation of Gadhafi's Libya. Indeed, these are the tangible planks of a permissive Obama strategy intent on further disengaging itself from America's (alleged) Bush-era cowboy image.
A war-weary American public is not necessarily unhappy with the foregoing policy decisions. A clear majority of Americans want our troops home. They are tired of the endless sectarian and tribal conflicts in this troubled corner of the world. Most importantly, they have grown weary of the daily casualty counts from a war the U.S. has decided it cannot win — a weariness present on both sides of the political aisle.
Only one inconvenient caveat applies: the American people want (and deserve) assurance that the terrorists will not simply re-establish operations that will again place us in jeopardy here at home.
This caveat is an important one. Americans understand that while there are limits to American might, it is equally dangerous to withdraw from or ignore strategic hot spots populated by dangerous antagonists. Indeed, Afghanistan is where al-Qaeda fighters trained to kill Americans. And it was not so long ago that anti-war candidate Obama labeled the Afghan conflict "a war of necessity."
Underlying this consideration is the notion that a deferential America invites trouble. The old adage applies: politics abhors a vacuum. In an era of an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood and American retreat, such vacuums are plenty attractive to bullies like Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — not to mention Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Which brings us back to Mitt Romney and last week's campaign pledge to support the Syrian rebels. Hopefully, some may be excited about the goal of saving innocent lives from Bashar Assad's increasingly brutal death machine. The world cannot be reminded often enough: history records that American soldiers are regularly engaged in humanitarian missions that save Muslim lives. But it is the clear departure from the president's passive approach to foreign conflict that makes this policy initiative so important.
Mr. Romney's Middle East pronouncement recognizes the very real limits to American power in Syria and much of the region. He does not advocate for boots on the ground. And he further understands that American-style democracies are far more the exception than the rule in a region accustomed to dictatorships and despots.
But this newly minted Romney doctrine recognizes that other (worried) Arab states are hesitant to move without strong American leadership. The demonstration of such leadership by a new Romney administration will help re-establish American influence in a part of the world that could only benefit from a revitalized American presence.
Assertive but pragmatic is a tricky path for any challenger. But it's one worth pursuing for a fast-closing campaign looking to take advantage of a foreign policy in disarray.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and Member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.