The shocking attack on a US consulate in Libya should provide an opportunity to reflect upon US policy challenges and options in the region, but has been partially overshadowed by election politics. Mitt Romney seemed to instinctively choose partisanship over national interest. Events in Egypt, Libya and now Yemen reveal how truly fragile the region’s political stability can be.
In the 21st century, the ability for nation-states to exert political influence has decreased due to economic and social globalization. There are now entities (international institutions, transnational corporations, social movements, humanitarian organizations, terrorist groups, etc.) that exert tremendous influence and are not under state control. For the United States, good policy options are increasingly difficult to formulate given this complexity. In the wake of the popular uprisings that rolled across the Arab world last year, many of the traditional regional political and security relationships upon which the US had relied for decades were suddenly irrelevant or devalued.
Since the Bush administration, the State Department has seen the value of engaging not only other states, but also engaging directly the populations within those states. In a sweeping initiative called Transformational Diplomacy launched in 2006 by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the department would “reach beyond the borders of the traditional diplomatic structures and beyond foreign capitals, diplomats will move out from behind their desks into the field, from reporting on outcomes to shaping them”.
This type of thinking was carried over into the Obama administration, reflected in the series of speeches given in the Arab world and evidenced by the small consulate recently attacked in Benghazi. This administration has strongly emphasized diplomatic outreach and dialogue as an alternative to what they saw as the heavy-handed and misguided interventionism of the Bush years. This investment may now appear to have been in vain, particularly if Arab populations are unable to differentiate between official policies and the individual actions of citizens who make films, draw cartoons or burn the Quran. Reacting violently against diplomatic personnel – and failure of the US and/or host nations to provide adequate security – despite the long-held tradition of respect for such personnel, demonstrates a grave lack of respect for the rule of law. In this region, though, religious fervor unfortunately seems to regularly overpower respect for an oftentimes absent rule of law.
However, rather than mourning the terrible loss of American diplomats abroad and pausing to evaluate US foreign policy options in the region, events in Libya are now being viewed through the lens of presidential politics due to the actions of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Rather than allow the White House to react to the crisis as it unfolded, Romney and his campaign immediately recognized a political opening and sought to exploit it with a critical and erroneous statement. When the timing of the utterances by embassy staff in Cairo and the Administration’s own statements had made it clear that the Romney campaign had been too hasty (The New York Times has a good description of events here), the GOP candidate chose to repeat the critique rather than diplomatically attempt to defuse the political tension by retracting or apologizing for the statement. The time for policy discussion and critique should come after the fallen have been laid to rest.
When John McCain hastily suspended his presidential campaign in 2008 and returned to Washington, one got the impression that the move was more about his personal ambitions than about national interest. That decision combined with McCain’s flustered demeanor (as compared to Obama’s steadiness) to give voters the impression of unreliability and egoism. It wasn’t about the country, it was about McCain. Romney’s actions in the past hours may prove to be his McCain moment.
For the next president, whether it be Obama or Romney, the greater Middle East presents a huge strategic, political and humanitarian challenge without easy answers, and it is one that dwarfs the petty manoeuvrings of presidential politics.