Mitt Romney's Pleasant-Sounding But Useless 4-Point Plan

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The GOP nominee says his Middle East policy would be about more than just killing bad guys. The trick isn't setting the goals, it's achieving them.

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President Obama charged Monday night that his opponent's Middle East strategy has been inconsistent and inadequate. How did Mitt Romney respond? With one of his stranger monologues. "Well, my strategy's pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to kill them, to take them out of the picture," he began. That made sense. He'll continue policies like drone strikes and covert special-forces raids.

"But my strategy is broader than that," Romney continued. "The key that we're going to have to pursue is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don't want another Iraq. We don't want another Afghanistan. That's not the right course for us. The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the people who are leaders of these various anti-American groups and these -- these jihadists, but also help the Muslim world. And how we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the -- the world reject these -- these terrorists. And the answer they came up was this."

Okay, hold on.

A group of Arab scholars devised a policy that will prompt the Muslim world to unilaterally reject terrorism? It almost sounds too good to be true! But there's more. It happens to be a simple four-point plan. And Romney sketched it out for America during the debate.

As he put it:

The answer they came up with is this.

One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment and that of our friends -- we should coordinate it to make sure that we push back and give them more economic development.

Number two, better education.

Number three, gender equality.

Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies.

Why, it's as simple as making whole societies wealthy, educated, and lawful. How hard could that be? Inspired by the numbered list, I've composed my own to share my reactions in the order that I had them.

  1. Isn't it strange to attribute this list to a panel of Arab scholars, as if these are the novel suggestions of a brain trust with special regional knowledge? Yes, the Middle East would benefit from a good economy, better education, more equality, and the rule of law. That's a pretty standard theory for how to improve a region, right? How did these scholars become relevant? 
  2. This seems like it's a list of desirable things more than a plausible plan for attaining any of them. Hurray, gender equality! But the tough part is explaining how it might be advanced, not affirming it.
  3. Is economic development and better education likely to decrease extremism in a country like Saudia Arabia? Does Mitt Romney think these are goals to pursue in all countries or just some?  
  4. If a prudent part of the response to extremism is aid for economic development, education, gender equality, and the rule of law, is that the course a Romney Administration would pursue in Palestine? If not, why not? If so, wouldn't that put dread daylight between the United States and Israel? 
  5. Would a Romney Administration request more for foreign aid to advance these very ambitious goals? Or would it reallocate existing aid? What existing aid projects would be cut to make the math work? How much targeted development aid will it take to make Somalia functional?
  6. In general, what makes Romney think he could achieve goals as elusive as "gender equality" and "the rule of law" given that neither aid nor military occupations typically succeed at any such thing?

If Romney's answer fits in any coherent way with the rest of his campaign, I am missing it. If it's helpful as policy, I don't understand how. I am not saying it's totally off base. Just that, if I told you that improving our schools is going to take more funding, better teachers, more motivated students, and a school environment free from violence and bullying, I wouldn't expect you to believe that I understand education policy, or have a serious plan to make it better. This was one of Romney's weakest answers. Perhaps it was very different as practiced during debate prep sessions.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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