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U.S. Politics Analysis: Is the World Less Safe under Obama, and Could Mitt Romney do Any Better?

National Public Radio recaps the key points from Mitt Romney's foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute

Mitt Romney, preparing to debate President Obama about foreign policy, set the scene at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday. Romney called Obama "weak", arguing that the Middle East, and the world, are more dangerous places because of the Administration's policies.

This immmediately begs two questions. Is Romney right, and could he do better?

So Is the World More Dangerous?

Any argument that starts with "The World" is weak, because the world is so complicated, but let's go farther....

In many ways, the world has taken a dramatic turn for the better in the last four years, whether or not US policy takes any of the credit.. The Somalian conflict is as close to a finish as it has ever been. Ethiopian troops, leading the Arab League forces and allied with the first elected President in decades, have the Islamist insurgents on the run. In Burma, international efforts --- including those of the US --- to push the reguime to reform have helped bring the release of long-term political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, have increased stability, and have raised the prospects for peace and democracy in the southeast Asian country. In Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the US "War on Terror "has devastated (some analysts say "defeated") the ranks of Al Qae'da. The terrorist organization that was once a global network of threats is now reduced in stature, and their greatest power has shifted from their ability to mastermind terrorist attacks to the strength of their name, taken up by many unrelated groups. The (incomplete) List of Al Qaeda leaders killed on the orders of Obama is long and continues to grow.

The attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi appears to have been a pre-planned attack by militants, sparked in part by the death of several high-profile Al Qaeda members, including Saeed al-Shihri, the group's Number 2 in Yemen, on 10 September 10th. These groups, and others carrying out terrorism have been growing in Libya for decades, and Mummar Qaddafi largely ignored these threats as long as they didn't affect him. Now that the US and its allies have successfully deposed of Qaddafi, some of the elements have come from out of the shadows. And, having emerged, these radical elements have been rejected by the Libyan populace. The largest rallies since the attacks of 11 September have been demonstrations in Benghazi denouncing the violence against the American missions, with polls showing a rise in pro-US sentiment.

There are, of course, many ways that the world is less safe. The Syrian civil war threatens to spill over border, having already led to the deaths of more than 30,000 inside the country. Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are high, with both sides committing atrocities. Iran is rattling its sabres, and Israel is rattling them even more loudly, Iraq is much better than it was in 2008, but problems persist. No strategy had led to better relations with North Korea since Bill Clinton left office in 2001. Political instability has rocked the Middle East, and for all of its promise, the Arab Uprisings have also brought plenty of tumult. Global terrorism continues to be a problem, and while progress has been made on some fronts, in many areas of the world the violence continues to grow.

However, looking at these events a clear pattern arises --- none of these problems was the direct result of any of Obama's policies. Instead, the opposite is true --- Obama's policies may not be responsible for all of the good things that have happened, but the US has played a role in many of them.

America cannot, and should not, control everything, and this lack of control is no one's fault. In, fact, the instability in the Middle East was directly caused by attempts to control the region. With a few notable exceptions, all the dictators in the Middle East were installed and/or propped up by the West. We are seeing an organic response to that control eroding (or, in some cases collapsing).

So, no, the evidence does not suggest that Barack Obama is responsible for the world becoming more insecure.

Is Romney Any Different?

There were few highlights in Romney's speech, but two were notable.

He said he'd levy harsh sanctions on Iran.

He said he'd arm the Syrian rebels.

On Iran, Barack Obama has passed many rounds of sanctions, and the Islamic Republic's economy has been devastated as a result. The Iranian rial is in free-fall, the prices of household goods have skyrocketed, and these developemnts are delegitimising and destabilising the regime. While sanctions against Iran are more than 30 years old, their impact has never been more significant. It is hard to see how Mitt Romney, using the same plan as Barack Obama, would have any more success.

Arming the Syrian insurgents is tricky. In February I wrote that while military intervention was perhaps in the best interest of the United States and the region, giving weapons to opposition fighters was a bad idea. Much hsa changed since then. The insurgency is larger and much more diverse, with mainly negative consequences. "Diversity" in the insurgency has brought small amounts of jihadists and foreign fighters. The rise of the Al Farouk brigades, who do not respond to the orders of the Free Syrian Army leadership, poses a real problem for a unified and safe transition after the fall of the Assad regime. At the same time, the insurgency is advancing at a snail's pace, and the war has devastated the Syrian populace.

I would no longer be so absolute as to say that arming the insurgents should be avoided at all costs. They struggle to advance, partially because of lack of arms and ammunition. However, this remains a poor option because the primary threat to the insurgents remains the Assad air force, as well as long-range artillery. To end that threat, full-scale intervention is required. I repeat the argument from February --- a half-measure would only make matters worse by giving the fire more fuel to burn instead of putting it out.

Romney's criticism has no merit in any case. He argues that Obama should selectively arm Free Syrian Unit units who share our values. According to leaked documents and a few of our sources in the Syrian opposition, this has already been happening, covertly, for months. Romney's plan is no more than vocally acknowledging what the Obama Administration appears to already be doing.

Then there is Libya. What happened on 11 September is a real problem. The embassy was perhaps under-guarded, and the follow-up investigation has raised questions about how well the building was secured. However, Mitt Romney again runs into problems with his argument. First, his initial response to the crisis was deviant, deceitful, and inappropriate for America's highest office which. Second, it is Republican members of congress that have cut funding for embassy security. Third, Turkey has arrested two suspects associated with the Embassy attack, American warships have been deployed to the region, the US has identified targets to strike, with aircraft and special forces moving into the area.

Obama is open to criticism on foreign policy. However, Romney is not making any substantive arguments, with the possible exception of Syria.

And my main question to Mitt Romney is this:

Why are you only calling for arming the Syrian rebels now? Where were these cries months ago, when it was possible that political pressure could move the Obama Administration to act?

A real criticism of Barack Obama might be that he did not change enough. He has continued and escalated the drone war, has surged in Afghanistan, has not reset the diplomatic situation with Iran or North Korea, and has not closed Guantanamo Bay.

But Romney is not challenging any of this, because he is likely to support these measures, albeit in private rather in public statements. Instead, he is pursuing the verbal trickery of turning a "hawkish" Obama into a dove.

Whether that is effective politics, time will tell. But no one should mistake it for a realistic view of US politics.

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