GOP Candidates' Middle East Conundrums
With so many Americans still unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, foreign policy issues are taking a back seat this political season.
Regardless of what is happening here at home, one of the most important responsibilities of a president, and one that often defines his character, is how he deals with issues abroad.
And the issues these days are plenty -- particularly in the Middle East.
Many political pundits tend to lump all Republicans, save Ron Paul, into the same category when it comes to foreign policy. But the distinctions among these candidates are there, and they are vivid. And as Mitt Romney campaigns in South Carolina as the party's frontrunner, it is worth considering how his Middle East policy fares against the other candidates and why it matters.
Ron Paul's views on U.S. foreign policy provide the clearest distinction from all the other GOP candidates. He will not go to war with Iran, he often invokes the term "blowback" when explaining foreign leaders' and terrorist groups' actions, and he wants to bring U.S. troops home from almost everywhere.
Although he is no longer in the race, it is still worth considering Jon Huntsman's views on the issues. He also stood out among the other candidates in promising to bring troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible while transitioning to a strategic counter-terrorism mission based mostly on intelligence and special operations teams.
As Rick Perry continues to push for getting rid of all foreign aid and imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, his foreign policy views seem extremely convoluted and often times insincere.
Then there is the rest of the GOP field.
While Iran remains the focus of foreign policy questions and answers during the Republican debates, Iran is just a piece, albeit a very important one, of the bigger picture.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago, Romney wrote:
Under the Obama administration, rhetoric and policy have been sharply at odds, and we're hurtling toward a major crisis involving nuclear weapons in one of the most politically volatile and economically significant regions of the world.
In a declaration of what his Middle East and Iranian policy would look like, Romney went on to say:
I want peace. And if I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran. I will do this together with the world if we can, unilaterally if we must. I will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
Romney's critics accuse him of fear-mongering when it comes to Iran and the country's nuclear capabilities. They say his openness in resorting to the "military option" is not cautious enough.
But as most foreign policy analysts would agree, America's problems in the Middle East are much deeper than just one country or one political entity. It is an issue of theology vs. ideology as well.
Attorney and member of the American Middle East Committee John Hajjar attempted to differentiate Romney's views from those of Newt Gingrich while drawing a clear distinction between theology and ideology.
"Gingrich is fighting against books, and that is necessary but not sufficient. Romney is fighting against strategies, and that's where the current battle is," Hajjar wrote.
Rick Santorum seems to share Gingrich's views, often referring to issues in the Middle East as a "Muslim problem."
Hajjar goes on to write:
Jihadism is an ideology born after Islam and has developed more literature than the initial theological texts. It is articulated by militant forces on the ground with gigantic financial and military resources. Understanding the five tenets of Islam is what one does in middle school, but analyzing and responding to the jihadist strategies is a task at a university level.
In many of his statements and speeches, the former speaker of the House takes the issue a bit farther. Some would argue even too far:
Stealth Jihadis use political, cultural, societal, religious, intellectual tools; violent Jihadis use violence. But in fact they're both engaged in jihad and they're both seeking to impose the same end state which is to replace Western civilization with a [radical] imposition of Sharia.
When it comes to the Arab Spring, Newt Gingrich strongly criticizes how the Obama administration has handled events in the Middle East and has been quoted as saying that the Arab Spring was "anti-Christian."
Rick Santorum also questions whether or not the Arab Spring resulted in more harm than good.
The former senator advocates for a more aggressive U.S. stance towards the Syrian and Iranian regimes. During his time on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Santorum was at the forefront of pushing through legislation to sanction the Syrian regime and to provide more support for Iranian dissidents. Santorum, like Gingrich, has spoken out quite often against any attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power in Egypt.
According to a source close to the campaign, Romney's stance is becoming more nuanced in that Romney believes that there is still a potential to partner with youth and secular groups in Egypt in order to demonstrate that there is a viable alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood in the country and in the region.
Romney believes that jihadism as an ideology, not Islam as a whole, is the real problem at hand.
If we consider the endless realm of possibilities as to what might happen next in the region, the importance of the candidates' foreign policy views, particularly those of the frontrunners, becomes that much more significant.
And with that, making the distinction between an ideological vs a theological problem becomes crucial.
Dina Gusovsky is a political contributor at Examiner.com, a former news anchor and correspondent at RT TV, and a former CNN producer.