Foreign policy has not been a particularly important topic in the 2012 presidential cycle to much of anyone other than Ron Paul. But there was an interesting moment in last night’s GOP candidate debate when Mitt Romney said something that just seemed jarring in the context of his and hs party’s commitment to an ideology of American Exceptionalism and rhetoric of truculent unilateralism. Asked (by an audience member identifying himself as Palenstinian-American) about U.S. Middle Eastern policy, Romney replied:
The best way to have peace in the Middle East is not for us to vacillate and to appease, but is to say we stand with our friend Israel; we are committed to a Jewish state in Israel; we will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally Israel.
Newt Gingrich promptly said “Governor Romney is exactly right.”
Now forget about the first two clauses of Romney’s statement, and in fact—please, I am not, repeat not, trying to start a debate about what the U.S. should and shouldn’t do in the Middle East—forget about the merits of the entire Middle East dispute. Isn’t it a bit odd, even somewhat unprecedented, for a prospective U.S. president to announce in advance that he is giving an ally a blank check to control U.S. policy in a major region of the world? It’s certainly not the kind of unconditional support the current government of Israel would reciprocate, and nor should they. Even the closest allies maintain some freedom of maneuver once the terms of explicit diplomatic agreements are discharged, and given its power, the U.S. is in the habit of insisting on an independent course as a matter of both principle and expediency.
There are obviously a lot of reasons that most Republican leaders, and for that matter a lot of Democrats, have abandoned the “honest broker” posture towards the Middle East that was taken for granted when George W. Bush and Al Gore debated this subject during the 2000 election cycle. Still, it’s one thing to suggest that the U.S. will naturally favor its historic ally in intractable disputes. It’s another thing altogether to outsource your policies unconditionally to a foreign government whose positions on matters of war and peace are more than a little controversial to its own people, particularly if your represent the supposedly hard-core U.S. nationalist party that claims it doesn’t trust anybody or anything other than naked self-interest and military power. Perhaps the refusal of contemporary conservatives to see allies anywhere else in the world—certainly not among those debt-ridden socialists of Europe—has made them hold Israel all the closer. But an awful lot of Israelis would tell you that giving this sort of total leverage over the United States to Bibi Netanyahu is not an act to be taken lightly. He will not hesitate to use it.
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