- - Thursday, July 26, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel gives Americans another opportunity to reflect on our Middle East policy. For the past 3 1/2 years, President Obama’s failed efforts at comprehensive peace in the Middle East have come at the expense of our ally Israel and democratic movements across the region. It is time to change course.

First and foremost, the United States must make clear that the primary threat in the Middle East is Iran’s illicit nuclear program. When first campaigning for the presidency, Mr. Obama criticized “those who would lay all of the problems of the Middle East at the doorstep of Israel and its supporters, as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all trouble in the region.”

The president’s tune changed quickly once he entered office. He traveled to Cairo to argue that the Arab-Israeli conflict had to be solved so it could “no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems.”

The United States must focus on halting Iran’s nuclear program. It should not be chasing a comprehensive Middle East peace that can only be achieved by the parties themselves.

Second, it’s time we had a president who will work with Congress to strengthen sanctions on Iran instead of fighting our efforts.

When Congress proposed in 2009 to strengthen the president’s authority to impose sanctions on Iran, the Obama administration opposed the measure. Mr. Obama signed it into law only after Congress passed the bill in the Senate by a 99-0 vote and in the House by 408-8.

Then, in October 2011, after it was revealed that Iran allegedly was planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil targeting the Saudi ambassador to the United States for assassination, Congress sought to strengthen the president’s sanctions authority even further. An amendment to the defense bill passed the Senate by a 100-0 vote. The Obama administration fought that effort, too, before eventually signing those sanctions into law.

Third, the primary impediment to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not Israeli settlements. It is the failure of the Palestinians to negotiate as if they are committed to peace. The Obama administration focused on Israeli settlements as the problem when it should have spotlighted regular Hamas rocket attacks or Iran’s continued support of Palestinian terrorists groups.

Finally, the United States must promise to focus on democratic movements in the region. In 2011, Mr. Obama gave a speech on the Arab Spring that was in full bloom. Inexplicably, he spent half of his remarks on a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.

Demonstrations across the region in support of universal freedoms showed how irrelevant the president’s fascination with a comprehensive Middle East peace is to the issue of greater freedom. In his misguided view, greater liberalization in the Middle East cannot happen until the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is solved.

The Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress, reported: “Since taking office, President Obama has devoted greater time and attention to the pursuit of Middle East peace than to efforts to promote reform and democracy in the Arab world.”

The president’s failure to support democratic movements in the region has had devastating consequences. A fractured opposition in Syria is one of the primary hindrances to the removal of President Bashar Assad from power.

Mr. Obama’s focus on a Middle East peace, which can be achieved only by the parties if and when they want it, has failed. It’s time to support pro-democracy groups across the region.

During Mr. Romney’s visit, Americans and the rest of the world will hear more about the importance of a foreign policy that treats Israel as a friend and ally to be supported instead of an obstacle to be overcome.

Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a physician.

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