Skip to main content

The Foreign Policy Debate: An Al-Monitor Roundup

The topic for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's final debate before the election was foreign policy, but the majority of the night was dedicated to the Middle East. From Obama's hat tip to Bush's Iran policy to Romney's concern about the Muslim Brotherhood, read original takes from Trita Parsi, Sultan Al-Qassemi and Alon Pinkas.
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shake hands at the start of the final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida October 22, 2012. At center is moderator Bob Schieffer.      REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS USA PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION)

Romney Takes Issue With Muslim Brotherhood

By Sultan Al Qassemi

Amidst the jokes about Mitt Romney’s Middle East geography blunder (Iran is Syria’s “route to the sea”) I thought his comment on women’s rights in the Middle East at the outset of the debate was interesting. In the same reply, Romney seemed to hint that Egypt’s Brotherhood was a serious concern to him. After mentioning the Benghazi attack he said: “Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by al-Qaeda-type individuals. We have in — in Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood president.” Notice the chronology.

Many Arabs wondered and commented on how and why the candidates would go out of their way to assure Israel of its security. I personally found the moderator Bob Schieffer’s question “Would either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States?” to have pushed this rhetoric even further to the right. Obama’s comment that the Egyptian government has to “abide by their treaty with Israel. That is a red line for us” must have caught the attention of Mohammed Morsi’s administration. While Israel was mentioned countless times, surprisingly Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil supplier, was mentioned only twice, and both times by Romney.

Obama’s promise that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon” was also intriguing. Obama can’t be president beyond January 2016. While each candidate talked about “crippling” sanctions on Iran, neither candidate cared to mention that many Iranian citizens are suffering as a result. It’s worth remembering that similar US-backed sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s only empowered the regime there and resulted in the deaths of countless innocent children.

While the Arab governments may be glued to every word, ultimately I don’t see much Middle Eastern public interest in the US presidential election due to a variety of reasons.

Obama Recalls Bush on Iran

By Trita Parsi

On the issue of Iran, the one point where significant differences on substance existed before the debate, Mitt Romney seemed to pull his punches. He predictably attacked Barack Obama on having failed to prevent Iran moving closer to a nuclear capability, for having “betrayed the Iranian people” in 2009 and for having been “unclear about red lines.” But beyond one-liners, Romney did not offer an alternative policy. He only promised to impose more sanctions, faster and earlier than Obama had done, while emphasizing that war is the option of last resort.

The candidates ended up competing about who could cripple Iran’s economy the most through sanctions — without expressing the slightest regard of what this would do to average Iranians who have little to no control (or responsibility) for the policies of their unelected decision-makers. And there was no explaining how the destruction of the Iranian economy would force an Iranian capitulation mindful of the failure of sanctions to alter Iran's nuclear calculations thus far.

In some ways, the debate actually added more confusion about the positions of both candidates on Iran. Romney because he vowed to pursue a different path without providing details, and Obama because he appeared to shift the goal post on Iran.

On three occasions during the debate, Obama stated that the goal was to “end Iran’s nuclear program.” That contradicts previous statements and hints that Obama, in a negotiated settlement, would accept a cap on enrichment below five percent under strict inspections. The administration knows very well if Obama's statement in the debate — which was kept vague — means a return to George W. Bush's zero-enrichment objective, there won’t be a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge.

Conceivably, the President kept his statement vague to sound tough in the debate while retaining flexibility at the negotiating table. But it was still a statement that appeared to move Obama closer to Bush on Iran — precisely what the President accused Romney of.

Candidates Swap Platitudes, Not Policies

By Alon Pinkas

Platitudes are a wonderful thing. Like Chinese fortune cookies they contain irrefutable truisms. They are politically safe, media-solid, voter-tested and reassuring, gaffe-averse and on many occasions happen to have validity and viability.

One thing platitudes (or cliches, or slogans) do not constitute is coherent policy. On the other hand, and despite Bruce Riedel's wise column here in Al-Monitor asking for policy prescriptions, perhaps "Presidential Debates" are not a forum in which you should or are expected to make serious policy proposals. Certainly not on the Middle East. President Barack Obama at least made an effort to explain his policies and asked voters to trust multilateralism and diplomacy. Mitt Romney just conveniently found refuge in the warm confines of platitude-land.

On the merits of this debate, and focusing exclusively on the portions devoted to the Middle East, it is safe to conclude that Mitt Romney would make a good vice president in a Barack Obama administration.

His Iran policy is no different. He, like the President, would not allow Iran to weaponize its nuclear capabilities and called for even harsher sanctions, although he made a strange geographic reference to Syria being "Iran's route to the sea." Not really.

Like the President, he would get rid of the butcher of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, and support the Syrian opposition, while not committing military forces. Romney did make a perplexing comment on how Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the great and quotable macro-economist that he is, mocks the US deficit as a sign of America in decline.

Like the President, he would use drone attacks inside Pakistan and sees the country's faltering stability and nuclear arsenal as a grave threat. Like the President, he would get out of Afghanistan in 2014. Like the President he would continue the war on al-Qaeda (even though, in another peculiar geopolitical reference, he is very concerned about Mali).

Like the President, who, to his credit, eminently snatched "Israel" from Romney's talking points, he sees Israel as a great, important ally with which we "must consult." We are, said the President to his could-have-been VP.

When they did differ on the Middle East, it was the dovish, Wilsonian Romney who criticized the "Realist" Kissingeresque Obama, claiming that America cannot shoot its way and needs to show leadership in facilitating civil society in Syria and Egypt. This is what you expect from a VP — a balance.

One thing was conspicuously absent: any real reference to the Palestinians and the future of an Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. But you can seriously fault neither Obama nor Romney. Israelis and Palestinians cooperated and succeeded in a grand achievement: to myopically get US foreign policy totally disinterested in them.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

Text Alerts - Be the first to get breaking news, exclusives, and PRO content.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial