Foreign Policy Blogs

U.S. Foreign Policy, the Arab World and FPA’s Readership

A man shows his inked finger after voting in Sana, the capital of Yemen.

It’s that time of year again, the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) has released its “National Opinion Ballot Report” for 2012. The report presents the results of the FPA’s National Opinion Survey, in which 20,623 ballots were returned, the majority of these ballots emanating from Florida, California, New York, Colorado and Arizona. Needless to say, these states are highly important in the upcoming presidential election and have been key battlegrounds between the two delegates.

Election pundits have echoed the time-old adage that foreign policy means little during presidential campaigning, particularly with an economy in the preverbal toilet. But as David Rothkopf has shown, it took Barack Obama’s disastrous handling of the first debate and the current controversy surrounding the Benghazi consulate attack for foreign policy to be shoved into the spotlight. Add this to the fact that foreign policy actually does matter–remember Vietnam, the Soviet Union or for that matter, Iraq/Afghanistan in the last election? This is not to mention that in an increasingly globalized world and one in which America is on the decline (sorry guys), foreign policy has come to be an important issue. China’s rise and its currency manipulation, the Arab Spring, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Al-Qaeda’s comeback and immigration policy are all key issues which cannot be ignored by the candidates.

Monday’s foreign policy debate yielded little surprise and presented only multiple vague statements on a myriad of issues that will have to be dealt with in the coming four years. It came as no surprise–given that these contentious issues, many of which present new challenges to America’s international standing–that the candidates did not want to be seen as posturing bullishly behind any one policy. Coupled with accusations by President Obama that former Governor Mitt Romney flip-flopped on many of his stances, are we to learn anything from Monday night’s “policy” battle? Furthermore, what do the readers of the FPA’s “Great Decisions” publication, a sample group of the citizenry which follows foreign affairs, think about America’s role and policies in the world?

As a contributor to the FPA’s Middle Eastern section and a Canadian (insert Mountie jokes here), I was curious to see if there was a correlation between the policies of the presidential candidates and the beliefs of respondents from the FPA’s ballot regarding America’s stance towards the changes in the Arab world. Do the two candidates represent the mainstream opinion among foreign policy observers? As the “National Opinion Ballot Report’s” first topic covered the dramatic shift towards democracy in the Middle East we can begin to get a sense of the where FPA’s readership stands vis-à-vis the presidential candidates.

Topic One asked, “The popular revolts and upheaval of the Arab Spring have radically changed the face of the Middle East. What lies ahead for the Middle East’s transition to democracy? What are the prospects for the governments that have held out in this new order? With many longtime US allies ousted, how will the US recalibrate its relations with the new regimes?” All of which are pertinent issues that the next incumbent must deal with and as historical events have shown, carefully maneuver through.

The first issue covered by the ballot was, “The US is on the ‘right side’ of the new governments and movements that have been borne from the upheaval in the Middle East.” Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed while close to a third disagreed with this statement. Although not a split vote, it does show that among those who follow the issues there is a strong minority that believes America has not, through support of these uprisings, garnered a better standing in the region. With attacks on U.S. embassies after the Arabic dubbed anti-Islam Innocence of Muslims was released on YouTube and the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb linked attack on the Benghazi consulate, it is clear why main respondents believe so.

Mitt Romney seems to agree as well, stating in response to the opening question in Monday’s debate that, “With the Arab Spring, came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation…instead, we’ve seen in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events.” The Republican candidate referenced the civil war in Syria, the Benghazi attack, the Tuareg rebellion in Mali and interestingly enough the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood presidency in Egypt. Most of these crises do present challenges to America’s role in the region and the safety of American citizens, but I’m quite sure that Mohamed Morsi does not present a security threat to the U.S. unless he becomes a flamenco dancer.

Surely, it hasn’t all been bad news from the Middle East? At minimum, America has stood up for its values and helped many of the downtrodden of this world achieve the right to vote in democratic elections and pick a representative of their choice. The aftermath of the Benghazi attack highlights that not all has been lost and that America is starting to be seen in a better light. The day after the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens Libyans took to the street in Benghazi to denounce the attack and show their support for the diplomatic mission and the beloved American representative.

One must be reminded that attitudes do not change overnight and that the people of the Middle East have a particularly long memory; which makes the outpour of support for America in Benghazi even more amazing. This wasn’t lost on President Obama who made it clear during the debate that,” despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying America is our friend. We stand with them.” An unthinkable development just five years ago when the Bush administration was bogged down in both Iraq and Afghanistan while anti-Americanism was at its height across the Muslim world.

Mitt Romney’s “leading from behind” rhetoric also seems to have no base of support among those polled as well. The former governor of Massachusetts has, throughout the campaign, accused President Obama of not taking the lead on foreign policy issues, particularly the decision to intervene against Moammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya. Is this view held by FPA readers as well? Sixty-four percent of respondents believed that “In future international interventions, the US should take a backseat role with limited participation.” Only eleven percent believed that the US should take the leading role. Overall, it seems as if the Washington Post was right when its columnist Jean McGregor stated that, “Romney’s calculus appeared to be that criticising the president for ‘leading from behind’ might make Romney himself look too hawkish.” It seems that Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy, which is at minimum a slanderous accusation, represents to many a thoroughly though-out strategy for approaching interventions that should not be labeled as such. The cowboy antics of past of presidents, which need not be mentioned, may have caused an about face on America’s role as a global policeman.

Interestingly respondents also provided support for a change in the relationship between the U.S. and its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf. Issue C stated that “The US should reassess its relationships with semidemocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.” Twenty percent of those polled strongly agreed while another sixty-three agreed with the statement. The Saudi-American alliance has lasted since the Kingdom’s founding in 1932 and it is the world’s largest producer of oil. Bahrain, a kingdom with a Shiite majority ruled over by Sunni royalty has seen one of the biggest and continual uprisings of the Arab Spring. Inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical orbit and a member of the Saudi led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain witnessed an intervention by GCC forces in March of 2011 to quell the uprising. The Human Rights Watch report outlines the various acts of murder, torture and arbitrary detention which ensued.

Bahrain is still geopolitically important for the US though, it hosts the United States Fifth Fleet which has been tasked with ensuring that Iran does not attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz. An important duty, given that seventeen percent of the world’s oil is transported through this geographical choke point and that any disruption to the flow with plunge the world’s economy into a depression. Neither candidate mentioned Bahrain and Saudi Arabia was brought up only twice during the debate, both times by Mitt Romney. The first was in regards to what the Republicans have dubbed “Obama’s apology tour” when the President visited the countries of the region and expressed regret at America’s handling of relations with the Muslim world, an obvious reference to the eight years of the Bush administration. The second time Romney mentioned the Kingdom was in regards to the uprising in Syria and the need to provide America’s allies in the region with leadership on the crisis. Overall, it seems that neither candidate, given the geopolitical importance of these two Gulf States, will be willing to distance themselves from these authoritarian regimes, a popular stance among our readership.

The final question put forward by the “National Opinion Ballot Report” largely split respondents. Issue D stated “The regime changes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have left al-Qaeda on the sidelines and demonstrate that the organization has fallen in public opinion in the Arab world.” Thirty-five percent of respondents voted yes, twenty-one percent no, and forty-five percent were unsure. The debate largely revolved around Al Qaeda’s core leadership, an issue Obama has won much acclaim for after Osama bin Laden was dealt with in his Abbottabad compound. Rather, it was the state of Al Qaeda and whether or not the remnants of the organization still pose a threat to the U.S. and its citizenry. The answer, as Mitt Romney brought up, is that the organization is alive, active and willing to wreak havoc on America and its interests in the region. The Benghazi attack surely highlights this issue and should not be dismissed. Al Qaeda’s core may be “decimated” as Obama stated, but it is still able to fight against the United States. As the infiltration of global jihadists in Mali under the banner of Ansar al-Din has shown — whether it is the core of Al Qaeda; one of its franchise offshoots, of which there are many, or an organization with a similar manifesto and goals — the U.S. has not rid itself of a jihadist threat.

To summarize, the “National Opinion Ballot Report” has presented an in-depth understanding of where the readership of the FPA stands on a variety of issues pertaining to the Middle East. America stands on the right side of the democratic transitions which have swept the region as part of the Arab Spring. Leading from behind is not necessarily a bad thing; it seems, in the opinion of our readers, to represent a well thought out strategy that does not expose American to dangerous miscalculations or imperialist accusations. Surprisingly, many believed that America should reconsider its strong relationship with the Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in light of their human rights abuses, not to mention how the former treats its female population. The issue of Al Qaeda and its potency is divisive, but the majority of respondents answering that they were not sure if the Arab Spring had effectively dislodged the organization. A lack of thoughtful analysis by the media, campaign rhetoric and the fluidity of this terrorist organization and its various spinoffs are probably to blame for the lack of a strong response. In the battle of foreign policies, if our readership was to choose a Commander-in-Chief solely on these four questions, Barack Obama’s Middle East policy and his willingness to allow America to take a back seat in subsequent military interventions would allow the incumbent to secure the presidency.



Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a Substantive Analyst with The SecDev Group focusing on conflict and instability in the developing world. He has written on the topics of radicalization, sectarianism and terrorism in the Levant and Iraq for a number of publications and is also a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil