- - Friday, October 19, 2012

Pundits repeatedly tell us that the November election is all about America’s economy and that the electorate faces a stark choice. For some reason, America’s role abroad, especially in dealing with rogue states, is seldom discussed. It is as if discernment stopped at the water’s edge. Make no mistake: Washington’s policies and actions toward the likes of Iran, Syria and North Korea are every bit as critical as electing an “economic” president. Those adversarial countries produce weapons of mass destruction, export terrorism and destabilize their regions as well as abuse their own citizens.

Managing relations with Russia, China and other established powers will rank high among international priorities for whoever is sworn into office in January.

The current political turbulence emerges from today’s militant regimes and former rogue states such as Libya, Yemen and Sudan.

Iraq was a rogue state that finally had stepped too far over the mark. As a result, the George W. Bush administration crushed it. While that anti-rogue war remains unpopular within the American electorate, it is important to recognize three victories for President Bush: First, his presidency rid the world of one of its quintessential lawless states. Second, it defeated the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda after its home office in Afghanistan declared Iraq the central front in its self-declared war against “crusaders” and “Zionists.” Third, the Bush administration’s intervention against the Saddam Hussein regime helped convince Libya’s rogue leader, Moammar Gadhafi, that a similar “shock and awe” fate awaited him if he persisted in attempting to acquire nuclear arms. Instead, Gadhafi disarmed, opened Libya to international arms inspectors and removed his country from the rogue column by 2006.

The contrast with the present-day Washington government could not be more striking. During the popular overthrow of the Libyan strongman in 2011, President Obama shied away from leading from the front, although the United States did provide vital logistical and surveillance assistance to its NATO partners. The consequences of the White House’s back-seat role have become apparent after the murder of the U.S. ambassador by al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Pilfered from Libyan armories, arms poured southward, fueling the Tuareg jihadis who helped topple the Mali government and now dominate a France-sized slice of the African country. Alarmingly, loose Libyan shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons remain unaccounted for and potentially could fall into terrorist hands. Some may have found their way to the Syrian conflict.

If Mr. Obama led from behind in the Libyan crisis, he is virtually absent from the international ranks dealing with the rebellion against Syria’s bloody dictator, Bashar Assad. Contemporary Syria is not only one of the main adversarial nations, but also the closest state ally of Iran, the world’s foremost rogue nation. Mr. Obama’s cop-out in the Syrian turmoil stands in sharp relief to what a Romney presidency might do to restore American clout in the Middle East. The Republican candidate recognizes the stakes in Syria. Bringing down the Assad regime would yield a threefold win for America: First, it would oust a stalwart Iranian proxy. Second, it would rob Iran of a land corridor to supply and back the terrorist movement Hezbollah, its client movement based among the Shia in Lebanon. Third, it would give Washington some leverage with the Syrian rebels. Already fears are alive that outsourcing the arming of the Syrian fighters to Saudi Arabia and Qatar has benefited the extremist Islamists who look to al Qaeda for inspiration and purpose.

Finally, a Romney administration could be expected to start afresh with Iran in confronting its accelerated nuclear program. Tehran pays little heed to the current White House occupant, even when he deploys a stout U.S. naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz. For the first two years of his presidency, Mr. Obama sent desultory signals, chiefly by standing aside quietly while the Iranian regime suppressed the Green Movement, which protested the fraudulent 2009 elections. The White House also squandered its credibility by disengaging from the region, as seen in the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. As a result, the mullahs scoff at U.S. military power. A second-term Obama presidency points to Iran inevitably securing nuclear arms. The leopard will not shift its spots.

A President Romney holds out the prospect of turning the page and assembling a credibly reinforced U.S. policy toward Iran. A nuclear-empowered and missile-ready Iran will cause untold problems for the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Given its stated intention to wipe Israel from the map, Iran poses an existential danger to the Jewish state. With A-bombs in its arsenal, Iran will, at a minimum, be emboldened to pursue an escalating, muscular foreign policy. At the very least, Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles will set off an arms race in the region as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states mount forces of deterrence. Thus, the November vote is a choice between more of the same disengaged and perilous approach or a safer course internationally.

Thomas H. Henriksen is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and author of “America and the Rogue States” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).