THE BLOG

And the Winner of the Foreign Policy Debate Is... the Emir of Qatar?

In the final presidential debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney said much of anything that was specific or enlightening with respect to the debate's supposed subject, foreign policy. This was to be expected, given how little Americans generally follow or care about international affairs, or recognize how much they connect to the economic ones about which they apparently do care, and about which the presidential candidates indeed have very different basic visions. As they reminded us, whenever they could veer the debate away from foreign policy.

Instead of giving foreign policy specifics, the president reminded us that the U.S. is a friend of Israel, that he kept his promises to end the American military involvement in Iran and scale it down in Afghanistan, and that he killed Osama bin Laden. Moreover, the U.S. can be and has been tough on the governments of China, Iran, Syria and Pakistan. But foreign policy towards these countries demands flexibility, nuance and multilateral engagement. Candidate Romney largely agreed with all of these points of Obama, except perhaps the multilateral part. His big foreign policy bone of contention with the President would seem to be that he is more of a leader, which, from the evidence of his foreign policy positions, appears to mean blustering a lot about American strength without offering specific ideas or even consistent principles.

In their strategic concern to focus on the domestic issues that their campaign staff think drive the close election, the candidates clearly believed Monday night that articulating specific foreign policy ideas could only hurt their chances with voters. In President Obama's case, this is despite the fact that some of his policies have been successful in reducing American vulnerability and improving American credibility abroad.

Yet the rest of the world doesn't wait for the winding down of the long American presidential campaign season, and much has been happening in the Middle East in recent weeks. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems so intractable that a rising tide of credible commentators is declaring dead the two-state, longstanding international solution. The conflict in Syria rages on unabated, spreading dangerously into Lebanon and Turkey. Iranian citizens are suffering severe basic economic shortages, while their government's stand-off with the West and Israel over nuclear weapons and political influence shows no sign of abating.

With such events, as much as I think I understand American electoral politics, I still would like to see active outside events to adopt innovative strategy that might make a difference in situations with major long-term implications for the U.S. like Palestine, Syria and Iran. This is why I "pivoted" in the aftermath of the Monday debate away from the U.S. presidential candidates towards the emir of the tiny, wealthy Arab Gulf nation of Qatar, who was at the same time about to become the first head of state to visit officially the democratically-elected Hamas-controlled government of the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Qatar's ruler undertook this agenda-shifting move apparently to try to build bridges between the increasingly separate Gaza and West Bank Palestinian leaderships, which have become even more evident after lackluster, polarized local elections last weekend. The facts that Qatar has had more open-ness towards Israel than most Arab countries and that Hamas appears to be gaining ground against the Fatah Palestinian party that has been supported by the West are both reasons to believe that the emir's visit is part of a broader strategy to reshuffle the deck of political possibilities for Palestinians and in their relation to Israelis. Perhaps the Qatari government hopes to moderate Hamas' positions on broader Palestinian or Israeli-Palestinian relations, thinking that the time to try foreign policy carrots, as well as sticks, may have arrived.

Moreover, the end of official isolation for the Gazan government has implications and intent towards other roiling regional issues. Qatar's consistent political efforts to push for some way to lessen the Syrian government's power against the groups fighting for greater political autonomy and related push to decrease Iranian political influence both connect to the Gaza trip. This is because Hamas' isolation has made it more dependent on Iranian backing, which has also been central to the Syrian regime's efforts to hang on amidst the tide of popular local anger against it.

Official Israeli and West Bank Palestinian sources decried the Qatari head-of-state's visit to Gaza, which is a sure sign that it had some political significance. Still, at this point, I would not assert strongly an argument that the trip will, in fact, either make a useful difference to internal Palestinian or Palestinian-Israeli relations, or to Syrian or Iranian government capacity. Indeed, I have followed Middle Eastern politics for long enough to know well that many bold, new outside policy initiatives can have deep negative impacts.

Nonetheless, what I would say is that, while two American leaders were trying to out-do one another on how well they could manage policy towards the Middle East, a far-away leader was actually leading a shift in that policy that was designed both to enhance his country's importance and to address current, critical problems. With respect then at least to active, concrete, influence-building leadership in the Middle East, the winner of the 2012 late-October foreign policy debate was... Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.