After eight years of running for president, Mitt Romney has yet to master the geography of the Middle East.
His knowledge appears limited to what he sees from his hotel room in Jerusalem, following the example of Sarah Palin, who is reputed to have said she understood Russia because she could see the country from her back porch.
To paraphrase Ann Richards’ memorable reference to George Bush the First, in her 1988 Democratic National Convention keynote speech, “Poor Mitt, he can’t help it, he was born in a country that has abandoned the study of geography”.
In a piece she wrote on the subject, Christina Salas lamented:
In the wake of the recent presidential election, an increased level of interest has surfaced in this country over foreign issues. While domestic economic issues arguably dominated the political scene, both candidates were repeatedly asked questions about Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and all of the other so-called rogue nations. . . .
[Unfortunately,] The education system in this country has never done a satisfactory job in pushing geographic knowledge. Just as U.S. students are losing ground in the international education rankings, so too is geography falling completely off the map in secondary education.
Sad to relate, that analysis appeared four years ago on December 10, 2008, following the last presidential campaign in which Mitt Romney sought, but failed to gain the Republican nomination. Four years later, the Republican nominee is back, still lacking a basic grasp of Middle East geography.
This time, however, the candidate is his party’s nominee, traveling around the country (and to Israel) informed by a team of advisors, 17 out of 24 of whom are from George W. Bush’s presidency.
Now that there is close to a 50% chance that Romney will become the next president of the United States, this basic lack of knowledge by Romney, and worse, his refusal to learn the facts about the area of the world which is at the heart of our economic and security woes, is at the very least, troublesome.
Romney’s geographical ignorance surfaced once again this week when the candidate said during his third debate with President Obama,”Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.” The map above refutes that assertion. Study it carefully, and pray that if Romney becomes president, he will also look at it carefully.
The morning after Monday night’s foreign policy debate, Saeed Kamali Dehghan wrote in the Guardian:
During last night’s foreign policy debate, Romney said: “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. In fact, Iran, a close ally of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has direct access to international waters through its large coastline on the Gulf and is not even a neighbour to Syria in order to rely on it as a route to the sea. Instead, Syria gives Iran a physical access to Lebanon and its Hezbollah militia which is strategically important for Tehran leaders because of the group’s geographical position in respect to Israel.
It is not the first time that governor Romney has referred to Syria as a country that provides Iran with a route to the sea.
In March, Romney made the exact [same] gaffe at AIPAC conference.
“Maybe one of the few bright spots in the Middle East developments in the last year has been the rising of the people in Syria against Assad. Obviously, as you know, Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally in the region. Syria is the route that allows Iran to supply Hezbollah with weapons in Lebanon. Syria is Iran’s route to the sea,” he said, according to the Washington Post, which fact-checked his remarks back then.
What this Romney observation says about the candidate is that he is simply not ready for foreign policy prime time. During the Monday night debate, veteran journalist Robert Parry, writing for Consortium News, points out that Romney’s goal was “to downplay his warlike neoconservative stands”.
The national media praised Romney for “hugging close” to Obama’s position, but Parry correctly notes that Romney’s “reference to the Syrian chaos as ‘an opportunity” suggests that his more moderate rhetoric is just another ploy to deceive voters and win the election, not a real abandonment of neocon strategies.”
In that sense, the new “moderate Mitt” is less a sign of a neocon retreat from his earlier bellicosity than a Trojan Horse to be wheeled onto the White House grounds on Jan. 20, 2013, so the neocons can pour forth from its hollowed-out belly and regain full control of U.S. foreign policy.
So, the neocons don’t really mind that Romney has suddenly abandoned many of their cherished positions, such as extending the Afghan War beyond 2014 and returning U.S. troops to Iraq. The neocons understand the political need for Romney to calm independent voters who fear that he may be another George W. Bush.
In Monday’s debate, Romney said, “Syria’s an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a — a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us.”
The “route to the sea” comment – with its faint echo of a distant time in geopolitics – represented proof that Romney lacks even a rudimentary knowledge of world geography, since much of Iran’s southern territory fronts on the Persian Gulf and Iran could only reach Syria by transiting Iraq. Syria and Iran have no common border.
Another point that Parry emphasizes, one that was largely ignored by mainstream media was the revelation by Romney that he finds a “crucial connection between the neocon desire for ‘regime change’ in Syria and the neocon determination to strangle Israel’s close-in enemies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah”. Furthermore, Parry writes:
Romney’s demand for a new Syrian government of “responsible people” further suggests that the Republican presidential nominee shares the core neocon fantasy that the United States can simply remove one unsavory Middle East dictator and install a pro-Western, Israel-friendly leader who will then shut off aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
In short, Romney’s foreign policy is not complicated. It is simply “make the Middle East Israel-friendly”, the Bush-era neoconservatives’ mantra.
That mantra requires that Romney cling to what Parry calls, his “peculiar sense of geography”, which gives him the freedom to keep thinking, and saying that “Iran was some landlocked country that needed Syria as a ‘route to the sea’.” The route phrase has a nice poetic feel to it. So what if it is factually incorrect?
Why should Romney learn Middle East geography? If he reaches the White House, Romney’s primary foreign policy advisor, Dan Senor, a Bush era holdover, will get his marching orders from Tel Aviv. Senor knows how to take orders. He was the U.S. public relations officer in the early days of the Iraq occupation. Public relations people know they must tell the public what the bosses want people to hear. Who need geography when you have Dan Senor serving as minister of the department of “make the Middle East Israel-friendly”.
And speaking of government ministers, here is one more thing before we enter the final week of this campaign. It is an insight that comes from the British-oriented cultural world of Harry Potter, where “ministers” of governments run things.
Who better to report on the American foreign policy debate than a Potter authority, who is, naturally, from the prime audience J.K. Rowlings had in mind when she wrote the Harry Potter books.
Writing in Slate, Katie Rolphe reports that her “Harry Potter-obsessed 9-year-old” daughter watched the Obama-Romney foreign police debate ” entirely through the lens of Harry Potter”.
It started in the last debate when she said of Mitt Romney, after hearing him talk for a few minutes: “He’s Umbridge!” And of course I saw exactly what she meant, the brittle, lacquered, self-satisfied smile of the ambitious Dark Arts professor and passionate ministry bureaucrat, Dolores Umbridge. The saccharine, almost-girlish chuckle. The proclamations she issues at Hogwarts, the self-important talk about “the ministry this” and “the ministry that.”
Of course, Romney is Dolores Umbridge. The former governor and Bain corporate executive was just one of the Republican pack of conservatives running for the nomination, until the Republican big money donors decided he was the most pliable candidate and rallied behind him.
He has not been on top long enough to develop a public image, which is why it is easy to link him to an established cultural figure like Professor Dolores Jane Umbridge (above).
For those unfamiliar with the Potter phenomenon, here is what you need to know about Dolores Jane Umbridge.
Madam Undersecretary Professor Dolores Jane Umbridge was a witch and Ministry of Magic bureaucrat who served as Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic under Ministers Cornelius Fudge, Rufus Scrimgeour and Pius Thicknesse. By order of the Ministry, she was installed as Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and then later Hogwarts High Inquisitor and Headmistress. In all three of these positions at Hogwarts she had enormous power over the students, teachers, and the curriculum, which she wielded despotically.
Umbridge and Romney have several things in common. To start, in Harry Potter’s world, Dolores Jane Umbridge served as Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic.
Of course, Romney knows all about magic. Refusing to give details of his tax plan; refusing to release his own tax returns; pretending to embrace Obama’s foreign policy in front of 59 million television viewers, Romney was doing what magicians do, fooling the audience with sleight of hand. His followers loved it. Good old moderate Mitt, keeps the magic to himself.
Who is Barack Obama in Harry Potter’s world? Katie Rolphe assumed, incorrectly, that her daughter would link Obama to Harry Potter, who in the novels is “the damaged hero. The chosen one. The boy who saves the world.”
Her daughter rejects such an obvious choice. Katie Rolphe explains:
“No, she said, impatiently. Like why can’t I see it? Why am I not receiving the message the universe is so clearly sending? Dumbledore! Wise, old, snowy-haired Albus Dumbledore (above). He has moral authority and gravitas, even when life at Hogwarts moves out of his control.
He is also a master of wryness, of sharp comments delivered dryly. You can easily imagine Dumbledore saying, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.”
When the evil forces of the ministry come to take him to jail, a magnificent orange bird swoops down, and together they vanish in flame. One of the ministry members, Kingsley Shacklebolt, says, ‘You may not like him, Minister, but you can’t deny: Dumbledore’s got style.’”
Take it from Katie Rolphe’s nine-year old Potter authority, this election will be a choice between Dolores Jane Umbridge, former Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic and “wise, old [in experience], snowy-haired Albus Dumbledore”, who posseses “moral authority and gravitas, even when life at Hogwarts moves out of his control”.
No question but that life in Barack Obama’s Hogwarts is constantly shifting “out of his control”. But at least Obama can find Iran and Syria on a map.