Secret Code

07.28.12

Arab Spring Comment Was a Romney Love Letter to the Israeli Right Wing

If you speak neocon, Romney’s Israel Hayom interview was crystal clear: the Islamist-electing Arab Spring was all Obama’s fault—because he failed to promote Bush’s freedom agenda. It’s all a message to Israel, says Michael Tomasky.

Usually Mitt Romney’s problem, as we saw in London, is that he says something obnoxious. But on Friday, to the right-wing Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, owned by Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson, he said something that simply made no sense, about George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the Arab Spring. Check that: it made no sense unless you keep up with the tergiversations and vanishing-commissar new versions of history propounded by the neocons and duly followed by Romney. Once again, Herr Mittens proves that there are times when he emphatically does not misspeak—when he’s sucking up to the right.

Israel Hayom asked Romney: “How do you view the Arab Spring and the way in which the U.S. responded to the uprisings in those Arab states?” Romney’s reply has to be reprinted in full to be savored properly: “Clearly we’re disappointed in seeing Tunisia and Morocco elect Islamist governments. We’re very concerned in seeing the new leader in Egypt as an Islamist leader. It is our hope to move these nations toward a more modern view of the world and to not present a threat to their neighbors and to the other nations of the world.

“The Arab Spring is not appropriately named. It has become a development of more concern and it occurred in part because of the reluctance on the part of various dictators to provide more freedom to their citizens. President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner.”

What does this even mean? If this reads to you like some kind of sign language or secret code, you aren’t far off the mark. Romney is speaking a kind of code. As Daniel Larison points out in The American Conservative, what Romney is trying to do is finesse his way around the two phases of the Arab Spring.

There was a time, see, when the Arab Spring was a good thing to the neocons. That it was happening at all was solely a reflection of Bush’s courageous “freedom agenda” and had nothing to do with anything done by Obama, even though it was all happening on Obama’s watch. That was in the early phase, the hopeful, Tahrir Square-centered, throwing-off-the-yoke-of-oppression phase.

But then the Arab Spring mutated into phase two, the democracy phase, when people started voting and, damn them, started voting fundamentalists into office. Suddenly, the Arab Spring wasn’t a glorious manifestation of the freedom agenda. Now it was a dark turn toward a pan-Muslim hegemony that was to be pinned, naturally, on the Muslim in chief in the White House.

Democracy for Arab people is OK, maybe, provided American liberals and Democrats don’t get any credit, and provided the process causes the Israeli right wing no discomfort.

So that explains part of Romney’s answer. The other part requires a leap of faith across some vast Grand Canyon of statecraft. So let’s get this straight: if Obama had continued Bush’s agenda, Romney’s saying, then Mubarak would have felt pressured to give more freedom to his citizens—so we’d have a freer Egypt, but with Mubarak still in charge. Um…sure. Just like he did when Bush was pressuring him, and he did almost nothing, a few fig-leaf local elections that meant little.

In its way, it’s kind of elegant. Romney manages to speak highly and sorrowfully of the freedom agenda, and thus to praise Bush. He disparages Obama. And—and here’s the real key to this puzzle—he signals to right-wing readers of this interview in Israel that we’d all be better off if the whole thing had never happened and Mubarak were still in power, closing off those tunnels in Gaza, never mind how full his jails were of his own people. That was his narrow intent—to speak to a conservative Israeli readership, and, who knows, perhaps Adelson himself.

More broadly, Romney’s remarks betray an odd attitude toward history. First of all, it is worth remembering that Bush’s freedom agenda involved, you know, a war in which tens of thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands more turned into refugees. But second, would Romney really rather the Arab Spring never happened? Yes, we’ll go through a period in which fundamentalist parties will prevail, but those parties will have to improve the lot of the citizens or they will, we hope, be held accountable. It’s a regrettable but inevitable phase of the process, and the region has to pass through it, no matter who the American president is and what kind of speeches about freedom he gives.

Video screenshot

'Michael Tomasky debates David Frum about Romney's trip abroad.'

In other words, democracy for Arab people is OK, maybe, provided American liberals and Democrats don’t get any credit for helping the cause along, and most of all provided the democratization process causes the Israeli right wing no discomfort. Both conditions, especially the second, render the whole project a nullity.

It certainly and quite directly raises the question of how a President Romney would have positioned the United States during the Tahrir Square uprising. With the batphone to his great pal Bibi beeping and blinking nonstop, would Romney in essence have backed Mubarak? Would he have placed the United States against those striving people in the street because however many months later, they were likely to vote the wrong way?

Romney may not know what he’s saying when the topic is Britons’ collective will or “varmint” hunting or the quality of cookies served by working-class Pennsylvanians. But he knew exactly what he was saying in that interview, and the results are sadder to contemplate than his famous errors.