The Middle East is idealism’s graveyard. The last three presidents focused to a large degree on reforming and remaking the region, and each came to grief in his own way. Bill Clinton’s attempt at a grand bargain between Israel and Palestine dissolved into the Second Intifada; George Bush’s freedom agenda met the blood-red streets of Fallujah and Tal Afar and an insurgency overcome only by the military offensives of the surge and Maliki’s iron-fisted rule; and Barack Obama arrived in the presidency believing in the power of his own personality but now faces a chaotic Middle East under ever-greater Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian influence. Enough with the idealism.
While Governor Romney paid some lip service to Middle East idealism (it seems everyone must), his focus — by contrast with each of his predecessors — is on the things we can control: Our own strength and our relationships with our allies. American military decline doesn’t empower allies like Britain, France, Israel, South Korea, or Japan; it empowers foes and rivals like Iran, North Korea, Egypt, Russia, and China. Creating “daylight” with our allies doesn’t help bend Iran or even the Palestinian Authority to our will, it creates gaps they hope to exploit.
We can’t transform the rest of the world into liberal democracies — nor can we make anyone love us — but we can maintain our strength, and we can stand with our true allies. In fact, a great many of our most egregious foreign-policy blunders over the past decades can be traced to failures in one or both of those goals.
One final, unrelated, note: I found President Obama’s retort regarding our shrinking and aging military inventories to be grating and unpresidential. Horses and bayonets? Really? Ships, planes, and tanks do not age like fine wines, and it is a simple fact that too many of our pilots are flying aircraft older than they are, some of our soldiers are rolling into battle in armored vehicles designed in the 1970s, and ships — no matter how capable — cannot be in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Japan at the same time.