Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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U.S. Foreign Policy: More Civilizing Missions?

by Steven A. Cook
November 1, 2012

U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney greet members of the crowd after the conclusion of the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton (Joe Skipper/Courtesy Reuters).


Apologies for the light blogging recently. I wish I had been able to be more active over the last three weeks, but an unfortunate injury to my left arm has kept me on the shelf.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in the world, what with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the presidential elections, the worsening (can it really get any worse?) situation in Syria, the emergence of an Egyptian constitution, a renewed Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, and the list goes on and on. Each of these topics deserves coverage, but I’d like to look back ten days to the presidential foreign policy debate.

Perhaps by now the topic is a bit stale, but when you are just beginning to rejoin the world like I am, the debate still seems relevant. I’ve been stuck on an oddly phrased statement that Gov. Mitt Romney made in response to Bob Schieffer’s first question about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Emphasizing the threat of extremism, the governor said: “We can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the–world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism…”

A few minutes later, Gov. Romney reiterated the point, declaring “…the key that we’re going to have to pursue is a–is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own.”

I tweeted about it as soon as the governor made these statements.  What, after all does a “robust strategy” or “pathway” to get people to turn from extremism entail? First, let’s stipulate that extremism represents a threat to people in the Middle East, who are almost always its victims, as well as to Americans. Yet the way in which Gov. Romney portrays the circumstances, one would think that the Middle East is awash in al-Qaeda type violent extremism.  These extremists exist and they have certainly sought to take advantage of the Arab world’s shifting political environment, but it is clear that large numbers of Arabs reject al-Qaeda’s worldview.

Second, it’s probably unfair to expect Gov. Romney to be explicit about his approach to the Middle East in the context of the foreign policy debate, but the governor and his team have provided a fairly well-developed statement about the Middle East. Here is the relevant passage:

“Mitt Romney will make available technical assistance to governments and transitional bodies to promote democracy, good governance, and sound financial management. He will convene a summit that brings together world leaders, donor organizations, and young leaders of groups that espouse the principles of representative government, religious pluralism, economic opportunity, women’s and minority rights, and freedom of expression and conscience in the Arab world.”

Good stuff.  Though perhaps it is because I have been paying attention to these issues for quite some time that Gov. Romney’s proposal sounds a lot like the late, but not-so-lamented Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Broader Middle East and North Africa Region, which came into being at a G8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia in June 2004. It proved to be wildly ineffective with little buy-in from Washington’s allies or the countries of the Middle East.

That was then and this is now. Mubarak is in jail, Qaddafi is dead, Ben Ali is in exile, and Assad is on the ropes, but there is very little reason to believe that new Arab leaders and their citizens will embrace grand international social engineering any more now than they did eight years ago. The uprisings in the Arab world are–in case anyone has not been paying attention–about national empowerment and dignity. Unlike Eastern and Central Europeans in the late 1980s who wanted to link up with the West, many in the Arab world are deeply distrustful of Westerners offering “pathways” to keep them from extremism. The United States and the West have an interest in the way debates over interpretations of Islam play out in the Middle East, but it is a fight that is up to Arabs themselves.

Lest anyone mistake this post as a partisan shot at Gov. Romney and the GOP, it isn’t. The Democrats have some of the very same “civilizing mission” impulses that actually are not terribly different in substance from what the Romney team is proposing in the Middle East.  I have met a lot of Middle Easterners who resent what seems to them to be an odd Western obsession with remaking the Middle East.  Its inevitable that the United States will be heavily involved in the Arab world, but both Republicans and Democrats should be careful before they insert themselves in other people’s debate over their identity and religion.


Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Perhaps we can learn a lot about how American elite deals with the outside world by looking at their choice of words. A word, which is frequently used is ‘FIX’. People in other countries, use this word for repairing machines, a mechanical process. However, Washington uses this word for repairing countries having millions of people. Just google fix with Iraq and Afghanistan and see.

    So, I agree with Mr. Cook’s word of caution. Ordinary people is Muslim countries generally resent US influence and interference. US support often undermines the leaders, it wants to prosper.

  • Posted by Sam Amer

    ‘Unlike Eastern and Central Europeans in the late 1980s who wanted to link up with the West, many in the Arab world are deeply distrustful of Westerners offering “pathways” to keep them from extremism’. I would add that the Arab Spring is aiming to get the as far away as possible from the West which is responsible for most of their problems: supporting dictators, arming Israel and economic colonialism. The Arabs would be better off standing on their own.

  • Posted by canadian

    This resentment of America is not from supporting dictators,nor arming Israel,nor economic colonialism.The Arab world,unfortunately ,is submerged in a religious cult that hates anyone who is not a muslim.This hatred is the driving force behind The Arab Winter,throwing these contries back 1,500 years.No good will come from it.The best thing to do, for America and the rest of the western secular and democratic world is to isolate the middle east until they go through a reformation concerning their religion and identity

  • Posted by Ben

    Romney’s statement caught my attention as well. @Steven, while I agree that Middle Easterners resent what’s perceived as a condescending “civilizing mission,” what is the U.S. alternative, especially if the trend toward Islamist groups moving into power exacerbates tensions between the West and the Islamic world? Shouldn’t the U.S. stand firmly against violent extremism and views that support that kind of world view, if carefully and delicately? Shouldn’t the U.S. foster engagement with groups and individuals within the Muslim world that share take that stand as well? I think our foreign policy works best when it is consistent and clear, even if it is not to the liking of every person in every country.

    Thank you.

  • Posted by venze

    The US needs allies regardless of their religions. As long as US does not instigate antagonism and conflict, or stick to its hegemonic ambition, it will be welcomed everywhere. (vzc1943)

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