Your humble blogger was all set to pivot from the U.S. presidential campaign to the state of the global economy when he stumbled across Tom Friedman's column this AM. The headline -- "It's Not Just About Us" -- was beguiling. It suggested the limits of U.S. influence in the region -- a suggestion that is not terribly popular with American foreign policy columnists. The bottom of the first paragraph -- following the de rigeur denunciation of Romney's latest foreign policy speech -- also makes this point:
The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us -- and them.
Okay, so what's our radical approach to a region with countries hostile to Israel, worried about Iran, and vulnerable to takeover by extremists? Friedman elaborates:
How does the U.S. impact a region with so many cross-cutting conflicts and agendas? We start by making clear that the new Arab governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections, and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles. (To their credit, Romney wants to move in this direction and Obama’s Agency for International Development is already doing so.)
Three things. First, if you're recommending a policy that both presidential candidates are also advocating, then there's nothing new. Second, there's a strong whiff of "it's all about us" by the time the column comes to the end.
Oh, and third: Saudi Arabia. Think about it.
This last point raises an extremely important issue. We're going to have a foreign policy debate in less than two weeks, and based on the news cycle the Middle East is going to dominate it. So it would be good, when either candidate evinces broad, sweeping policy pronouncements on the region, to at least acknowledge the inconsistencies.
So... might I suggest to Bob Schieffer that when he moderates the foreign policy debate, he keep the follow-up questions listed below in case of emergencies?
1) You argue that we should aid conditionality and other measures to require democratization, liberalization, and the promotion of human rights in the Middle East. How exactly would this policy apply to Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf sheikhdoms (including Bahrain, home of the Fifth Fleet), and Israel's role in the occupied territories?
2) Is it possible for the United States to tie itself closer to Israel while still maintaining its popularity with newly empowered Arab populations? If so, how?
3) Why do you believe that economic sanctions will not work against Iran but that aid conditionality will work against newly-democratizing Arab regimes?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.