Recent events underscore what is really at stake in the upcoming US presidential elections, and, more to the point, they raise serious doubts as to whether Republican candidate Mitt Romney is really up for the job, writes William Dowell.  An even more critical question is: how should the US react to events in the Middle East: continued efforts at diplomacy, or no more Mr. Nice Guy?

The death of  Christopher Stevens, America’s ambassador to Libya along with three other Americans is a tragedy not just for the United States, but also for those Libyans trying to create a stable government after decades of being controlled by a dictator who oscillated between bouts of megalomania bordering on the absurd and homicidal madness.  It’s now clear that a number of Libyans tried to protect the Americans against a mob stirred up by a  ridiculous video posted on YouTube. 

The real assault on the US consulate in Libya was apparently launched by a dedicated militia group that used the protest as cover for a carefully orchestrated attack.  US intelligence experts suspect that the attack may have had nothing at all to do with the protests, but may in fact have been timed to the anniversary of 9/11 and recent US strikes against key Al Qaeda leaders. 

The video that supposedly triggered all this was clearly intended to be offensive to Muslims, but it is so outrageously stupid that it is hard to imagine any adult taking it seriously enough to pay much attention to it.  But the situation in the Middle East is extremely sensitive these days, and even a bad joke in extremely poor taste is enough to set things off. 

While political leaders like Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi try to deal with religious extremists in their ranks, the US also faces domestic irrationality ranging from absolutists in the Tea Party to extremists in the Christian right, wealthy amateurish Zionists like Sheldon Adelson and knuckle-hardened conservatives who dream of turning  Ayn Rand’s egocentric daydreams into a practical reality.  The contemporary political scene, in short, is beginning to look more and more like a minefield that is criss-crossed with trip wires. 

One suspects that the mobs who attacked the US consulate in Libya and then tried to ransack the US embassies in Egypt and Yemen, never actually saw the video in question. If they had, they probably would have stayed home. What  really motivates them is a deep seated antagonism against the US that springs from decades of opportunistic meddling in the internal affairs of Muslim countries, whether support for Israel,  extracting oil from the Gulf, playing politics in Lebanon, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or support for figures like Mubarak. It is in this context, that Mitt Romney, a genuinely nice, if clueless, potential future leader  found himself blundering in the dark.

A few hours before the protests broke out in Libya, the US embassy in Cairo  issued a statement condemning the video and trying to reassure the Egyptian public that the US government has nothing against Muslims and supports freedom for all religions. Several hours later, the attack on the consulate took place.  Still in campaign mode, Mitt Romney misinterpreted the Cairo embassy’s statement as being the first reaction to the death of the US ambassador in Libya.

Apparently shooting from the hip, Romney accused President Obama of going soft on Muslims.  When told that he had misunderstood the timing of events,Romney tried to stick to his guns and insisted that the attack had been a reflection of Obama’s attempts to be friendly to Arabs, and that it would not really have happened if the Middle East had been truly afraid of US power.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins, in a column entitled “Mitt’s Melt Down,” trenchantly summed up the reaction to Romney’s latest careening stumble. As Collins suggested, the hope was that Romney could remain inoffensive long enough for everyone to see him as a legitimate alternative.  It was kind of a deal with the electorate: don’t make waves, and you just might be the one.  “Perhaps he didn’t know he’d made it, although, really, I thought it was pretty clear,” Collins wrote,”He could do anything he wanted during this campaign as long as he sent out signals that once he got in the White House he was not likely to be truly crazy.  We, in return, were going to be able to continue with our normal sleeping patterns through the fall.  It didn’t seem to be a lot to ask, but when the crisis in the Middle East flared up, Romney turned out to have no restraining inner core. All the uneasy feelings you got when he went to London and dissed the Olympic organizers can now come into full bloom. Feel free to worry about anything. That he’d declare war on Malta. Lock himself in a nuclear missile silo and refuse to come out until there’s a tax cut. Hand the country over to space aliens…”

Undeterred, Romney and a handful of Salafist Republican hardliners have made it clear that they would like nothing more than to see the US take an approach that is based more on intimidation and the threat of force.  Eight years of failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an overstretched US military that is collapsing from exhaustion,  have not convinced them.  Double down and do even more,  the Republicans  argue, and the other side will come around.   Of course, neither Romney nor his erstwhile running mate, Paul Ryan, have any previous experience  in the complexity of international diplomacy or geopolitical strategy, but they point out that Barack Obama didn’t have any foreign policy experience either before assuming the presidency. The difference is that Barack Obama is a fast learner.  Mitt Romney clearly is not, and Paul Ryan, who entered Congress from a minuscule district shortly after college, remains mired in an Ayn Rand-ian fantasy land.

All of this might not make that much difference if the situation in the Middle East did not appear to be boiling towards one of its periodic explosions.  With China and Russia holding the UN Security Council at bay while Bashar al-Assad, a member of the country’s Alawite minority, attempts to bomb Syria’s Suni majority into submission,  a new web of conflict has arisen.  The fighting groups that have sprung up in a desperate effort to protect against Assad are gradually tightening links with the Gulf Arabs who are Suni’s and who object to the atrocities of  the Shiite Alawites.  That has brought Shiite Iran into the picture. Relying on Russian and Chinese support, the Iranians are flying guns and ammunition into Syria to support Assad, and that is raising even more concern with the Gulf Arabs, who realize that Iran has always had eyes on their oil wealth.

Add to this picture, Iran’s insistence on convincing everyone that it is on the point of developing a functional atom bomb, and Israel’s Netanyahu’s determination to attack Iran’s multiple nuclear sites in order to prevent that from happening.  Israel lacks the conventional weapons to take the hardened sites out with ordinary weapons, but it has some 200 nuclear warheads that could do the job quite well.

Anyone who recalls how the assassination of an obscure Serbian archduke named Ferdinand  triggered World War I, may see the potential for a replay here.  The Russians were involved in that one as well.  Let’s not forget that the isolationist Republican Party’s refusal to let the US join the original  League of Nations also helped clear the way for World War II.

It is in this state of affairs that Mitt Romney accuses Barack Obama of being overly conciliatory. Eisenhower may have said it best, when he was accused of bing overly cautious.  “If you are not worried,” Eisenhower said, “perhaps you don’t understand the situation.”   Romney seems a decent enough man, and his wife’s glowing praise for him at the Republican Convention is probably quite true as far as it goes, but we live in a dangerous world, and simply being a “nice guy” is not enough. It also helps to be right.  If the Republicans do win the US elections, all bets are off.


Gail Collins in the New York Times on the Romney debacle

The dumber than dumb offending YouTube video: The Innocence of Muslims