How Romney Can Lose
by Donald Devine
Issue 206 – June 20, 2012
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney just set himself up for a fall. He criticized President Barack Obama for a “lack of leadership” in Syria and called for arming the opposition to strongman Bashar al-Assad and for becoming more involved in his overthrow.
A leading Democratic strategist leapt to the charge and said “make my day.” This is a no lose situation for Mr. Obama. The American public is opposed 56 to 37 percent to providing weapons even to defend “safe havens” for Syrian refugees in Turkey much less in the middle of its civil war, and 77 percent oppose committing armed forces, according to the Program on International Policy Attitudes. Somehow Mr. Romney has let his neoconservative-heavy foreign policy advisors get him into an issue Independents are even more opposed to and that he cannot win. A Fox News poll shows Obama with an 11 percent advantage on foreign policy over Romney.
In fact, the Democrat had an even more Machiavellian insight. If the president actually took his opponent’s advice, it would be even better politically. If there is one settled tenant of public opinion science it is that when America gets involved militarily, the people “rally ‘round the flag” to support the president. If a president had a faltering economy after three years of failing policies, with unemployment still increasing and stagnation as far as the eye can see, might he not be tempted to run the movie “Wag the Dog” in the White House theater and formulate a plan for U.S. involvement, say in mid-October just before the election?
Involvement in Syria is not smart anyway. Who says so? How about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger? He concedes that Assad is a bad guy and that there may even be some strategic reasons to intervene – but he poses two tests to justify any involvement. First, there has to be agreement at the onset regarding precisely who and what will replace the present regime or when our troops depart the fighting will restart. Second, the objective must be achievable in a time period that U.S. public opinion will accept. “I doubt that the Syrian issue meets these tests,” he concludes, especially in the light of our experience in “Iraq and Afghanistan, which ended in withdrawal and a divided America.”
Former Professor Kissinger framed his comments in the context of the Treaty of Westphalia international system developed to contain the 30 Years War that resulted in the death of perhaps one third of Europe in the 17th Century. War was constant because uprisings in each country drew in combatants from outside. The solution was to ignore events within nations and only to become involved when borders were crossed or direct action was taken against other nations. That system has basically survived until modern times. When it failed, the result was two devastating world wars and an enervating cold war. Kissinger is concerned the Arab Spring and Obama’s and the world’s reaction to it represent a change from the Westphalian principle of equilibrium to a “humanitarian interventionism” policy that requires regime change.
The new theory assumes any opposition to an authoritarian is “democratic” and requires humanitarian intervention and a new regime. But no one knows how to positively change Middle East regimes. In Syria, it is not clear the strength of opposition to Assad or its nature. The CIA concedes that al-Qaeda is part of it although not dominant. The opposition is based in a Sunni majority population that naturally resents being ruled by a Shiite-type Alawite minority, although few Sunnis are active and many still support the regime to keep the peace. The Alawite, Christian, Kurd, Druze and Armenian minorities fear Sunni majority rule and support Assad as the lesser evil. Memories run deep. In the 19th Century a Sunni mob slaughtered 5-10,000 people in the Christian quarter of Damascus that was ruthlessly put down by the Ottoman authorities to restore order, earning minority and even some Sunni support, a method adopted by Assad. A Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung news story even cites witnesses that the Houla massacre was actually perpetrated by the opposition and that the murdered were Alawites.
Complicated foreign intrigues are difficult to manage in democracies, even by the brightest Western experts. We now finally know from a meticulous new book on foreign policy by CBO contributor George W. Liebmann that even Kissinger learned the hard way in Vietnam. The Last American Diplomat is a biography of State Department career diplomat John Negroponte who served under Kissinger on the National Security Council and saw it all. As today, elections have a nasty way of occurring even during foreign crises. As the 1972 U.S. presidential election approached in the face of inflation, an improving but sluggish economy, and an unpopular war, President Richard Nixon was anxious to end the war in Vietnam to assure his re-election.
Desperate to improve his bargaining position, Nixon approved a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam but at the same time directed Kissinger to get the best peace he could negotiate so the unpopular war would not dominate his second term. Even though the North had exhausted its supply of Surface-to-Air Missiles leaving it defenseless, Kissinger agreed to a peace that left South Vietnam at the mercy of Northern mainline troops within its territory. Negroponte considered this indefensible, which Kissinger resented for years. As military consultant Sir Robert Thompson told the U.S.: “In my view, on December 30, 1972, after eleven days of B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area, you had won the war. It was over. They had fired 1242 SAMs. They had none left…They and their whole rear base at that point were at your mercy.”
The U.S. expended enormous resources and 58,000 military lives in Vietnam but the public turned against the war and Kissinger was forced to conclude a flawed treaty even in the face of victory. Liebmann’s point is that foreign policy is a tough complicated business and there is no substitute for wisdom and experience in dealing with the savvy, Machiavellian, tough guys of international relations who do not play by white glove business rules. There is a reason why foreign policy realists tend to ignore internal conflict in foreign nations and only respond to cross-border aggression and attacks on the homeland. Internal conflicts are endless and no nation can be constantly at war. In a democracy, experts do not have the flexibility over the long haul to manage military complexities. The people just will not support war long enough unless attacked.
In regard to Syria, Kissinger ends with this advice: “We cannot afford to be driven from expedient to expedient into undefined military involvement in a conflict taking on an increasingly sectarian character. In reacting to one human tragedy we must be careful not to facilitate another. In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath. A sense of nuance is necessary to give perspective to the proclamation of absolutes” about democracy.
If a Romney campaign much less a Romney presidency is to prosper, it must develop this seriousness of purpose and not be driven by short term political expediency or rash adventurism if it is to earn the respect and support of the American people.
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.