Juan Cole

Romney’s Middle East: So, Who is the Enemy, Mitt?

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Mitt Romney said Monday that of course he would have taken out Bin Laden and that ‘even Jimmy Carter would have made that call.’

Since Jimmy Carter ordered a brave and risky but failed military mission into Iran, that was a cheap shot on the part of someone who has never had anything to do with the military. Moreover, Jimmy Carter made peace between Egypt and Israel and played a major role in reducing the number of Africans stricken by the Guinea worm from 3.5 million to 1,100. So Romney, who has mainly been sending our jobs overseas, isn’t good enough to shine Carter’s shoes.

Moreover, Romney is forgetting what he said about Obama when Bin Laden was killed:

“I think the president deserves credit for approving a relatively high-risk entry into the country with helicopters and special operations personnel, Navy SEALs,” Romney said. “That was the thing that proved to be successful.”

So at the time, Romney acknowledged that Obama made the decision, and that it was a high-risk strategy that he approved (advisors such as Joe Biden preferred a missile strike).

Romney was pushing back against the Obama campaign’s use against him of his 2007 statement in which Romney:

“Said the country would be safer by only “a small percentage” and would see “a very insignificant increase in safety” if al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught because another terrorist would rise to power. “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person,” Romney said. Instead, he said he supports a broader strategy to defeat the Islamic jihad movement.”

The problem with Politifact’s fact check on Romney here is that it doesn’t understand what Romney meant by the ‘Islamic jihad movement.’ In a 2007 primary debate, Romney explained:

” Romney: We’ll move everything to get him. But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person — Osama bin Laden — because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another.

This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and Al Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.

They ultimately want to bring down the United States of America.

This is a global effort we’re going to have to lead to overcome this jihadist effort. It’s more than Osama bin Laden.

But he is going to pay, and he will die.”

Romney is saying that he wouldn’t move heaven and earth to get Bin Laden, but that he would spend billions and have a strategy to fight the Muslim movements he names, or perhaps the whole Muslim world (“Shia and Sunni”). But note that ‘Shia’, followers of the Shiite branch of Islam, reject the Sunni notion of a caliphate (a kind of early Muslim papacy, which no longer even exists), so he is simply incorrect in lumping Shiite Hizbullah with the Sunni groups. And, it also isn’t true that Hamas (a Sunni national liberation movement focused on Palestine) or the Muslim Brotherhood (focused on national politics in Egypt and Syria) are dedicated to a caliphate. Rather, their energies are devoted to national politics in each state, and they don’t have a common leadership across nation-states. Romney incorrectly sees Muslim fundamentalism as all one thing, as though in Christianity you lumped Mormons, Evangelicals, ultramontane Catholics, and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army all together and accused them of working jointly for global political rule by the Pope.

Romney is a scary conspiracy theorist when it comes to the Muslim world, and his discourse in this regard is eerily similar to that of European far-right figures such as Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer.

The truth is very different. As it now stands, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has formally renounced the idea of making Lebanon an ‘Islamic Republic,’ and noted that he was young and inexperienced when he once talked like that over a decade ago. Hizbullah, representing Lebanon’s Shiites, has members of parliament and cabinet positions and backs the current Miqati government, so it is part of the Lebanese political establishment. Is Romney going to declare war on Lebanon?

And, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt now controls the elected parliament of that country. Is Romney going to declare war on Egypt?

Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria is a key actor in the current revolutionary movement in that country. Does Romney prefer leaving the secular Baath party of dictator Bashar al-Assad in power in Damascus? But no:

” Scott Pelley: Governor Romney– Governor Romney, if I may ask you a 30 second follow-up to that. Is it time for the Assad dictatorship to end? Would you use mili– tel– military force to do that?

Mitt Romney: Of course it’s time for the Assad dictatorship to end. And we should use covert activity, as Speaker Gingrich has just indicated. Look– the– the reason I disagree with Ron Paul on this is– that you have, in Syria, a nation which is an ally, the only Arab ally, of Iran. It is arming Hezbollah. It represents a– an access– of– of great significance to Iran. And as a result, because of our concern about Iran, and their effort to become the Hageman in the Middle East, it is important for– for us as a nation to stand up and to help those efforts to– to replace A– Assad. And that means helping Turkey and– and– Saudi Arabia, who are putting pressure on him, as well as covert activity of our own.”

So in practice, Romney is allied with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and, get this, Saudi Arabia. In his litany of Muslim fundamentalist movements he wanted to spend billions of dollars to fight (as an alternative to focusing on Bin Laden), Romney pointedly did not mention Wahhabi Islam, the branch predominating in Saudi Arabia, which is substantially to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood!

The old Muslim fundamentalist movements have for over a decade been being drawn into parliamentary, Westminster-style politics. Romney, who seems to recognize this tendency with regard to Turkey, can’t see it in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

So the real problem with Romney is not that he would not have taken out Bin Laden. It is that he sees the Muslim world as in the grip of a congeries of pan-Islamic Caliphate movements against which he wants to wage a Mormon jihad with trillions of dollars of taxpayer money. But in fact almost none of the movements he mentions has anything to do with al-Qaeda or a Caliphate. Romney supported Hosni Mubarak to the hilt and opposed the Arab Spring. He doesn’t understand the youth movements sweeping the Arab world. He lumps all kinds of unrelated, and changing, Muslim movements together with al-Qaeda. He doesn’t even seem to understand that if he works to get rid of the al-Assad regime in Syria, he likely will be bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to power there, one of the groups he is sworn to fight as fiercely as he would Bin Laden.

The problem with Romney is that when it comes to the Muslim world, he doesn’t have the slightest idea what he is talking about, and seems intent on alienating 1.5 billion Muslims, a fifth of the world. He wanted to substitute a crazy conspiracy theory for a tactical approach to getting Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership. In this regard, the Obama campaign has correctly nailed him, but they haven’t gone far enough in emphasizing the truly creepy character of his obsession with Muslims in general, far beyond the fringe al-Qaeda element.

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