Mitt Romney took a low-key approach during last week's debate on foreign policy. It baffled that he didn't continue to press on the hot button issue of the murder of our ambassador in Libya. The ambassador had asked for extra security and didn't get it, so he and three other Americans died in a well-planned terrorist assault, not by the random violence of a mob supposedly offended by a stupid video.
President Obama was judged to have won the debate. But grave consequences for the long term have been seeded by the administration's Middle East policies, especially our relationships with Egypt and Iraq.
Let's return to the popular uprising that began in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in January 2011 with crowds protesting the Hosni Mubarak regime. The administration sent a former ambassador to Egypt bearing an impeccable reputation and credibility with President Mubarak—Frank Wisner. He was given specific written instructions of a defined settlement to work out with Mubarak. In outline, Mubarak would agree not to run for office in September so as to facilitate an orderly peaceful transition to a new regime.
Ambassador Wisner swiftly accomplished his mission. But back home, in a press conference, Obama publicly called on Mubarak, our longtime ally, to resign, and to resign "now." The following day, his press secretary was asked what the president meant by "now." He responded that "now" meant "yesterday." But "yesterday" was completely inconsistent with the settlement Wisner had faithfully agreed upon with Mubarak. So carelessly did we abandon our ally.
Wisner left Egypt in dismay. His own president had cut the ground out from under him, and we lost a settlement that would have been far more constructive for American interests than what was to transpire.
The ambassador was not alone in his bewilderment. The Arab world shared it. In an encounter I had with a leading Saudi in Europe at the time, he expressed his shock: "Mubarak was your longest and most loyal ally in the Middle East. He worked with you on every counterterrorism measure over the last 30 years; he kept the Suez Canal open; he supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Camp David peace agreement arranged by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat; and he continued to support efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian compromise, and to that end he even helped blockade Hamas in Gaza. Yet in the first week that Mubarak was in trouble, you backstab him." What all the regional leaders in the Middle East now believe, he says, is that "the minute I get into trouble the same will happen to me."
That word—backstab—has haunted me ever since. The Saudi was saying we'd breached the code of international relations long adhered to in maintaining peace in the volatile Middle East. That code is simple: You support your friends, especially long-term allies such as Mubarak, and you don't abandon them when they are in trouble, and especially through the public words of a press secretary. The code seems to have been completely beyond the understanding of the Obama administration, and there will be consequences. The Saudi official closed his comments as follows: "Do you think we are ever going to rely on the United States again?"
Shortly thereafter, the administration had to address a different issue of critical importance to another longtime ally, Saudi Arabia. There had been an uprising of Shiites in a neighboring island of Bahrain, a few miles off the coast of Saudi Arabia. The protests were nourished by Iran, which was anathema to the Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia. They considered it a threat to their national security so they had sent a military mission. While this was going on, Obama intervened to tell Saudi King Abdullah, in a private conversation, that the Saudis should exercise restraint. The result was a deep fissure in the long-standing U.S.-Saudi relationship, and instigated a loss of cooperation from yet another key U.S. ally in the region.