Second, across the Middle East, the problem is not that the United States is seen as weak. It is that it is seen as a menacing, all-powerful force that uses its unrivaled military might to impose its will.
A June Pew Center public opinion poll in Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, found that clear majorities believe the U.S. acts unilaterally in the region. The American government is seen as being behind every major event in the Middle East – from the rebellion in Syria to the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victory in Egypt. The perceptions are illogical but real, and while conspiracy theories ought not influence policy, our problem is arrogance, not inaction.
As I have written in the past, a clear message has emerged in interviews with Muslims across the Middle East and South Asia since 2001. They do not want to be dictated to by Americans. Nor do they want Islamic hardliners to impose an extreme version of Islam on them. Instead, they yearn for a third way where their countries can be both Muslim and modern.
I believe a new, more pragmatic and less military-oriented American policy in the Middle East will achieve more than the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did. In some instances, drone strikes, covert operations and lethal force may be necessary. But investment, education and training, and normalized relations, are just as important.
Today in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, young people yearn for American high-tech investments, trade and education. Public opinion surveys show an admiration for American technology, pop culture, democratic ideals and ways of doing business, particularly among the young. The rule of law, individual rights and consumerism are three of our most potent weapons against extremism.
The United States should ally itself with groups that support and abide by democratic norms, oppose violence and uphold international human rights laws, whatever their faith. Rather than boasting of our might, the core focus of American policy in the region should be how to quietly, consistently and effectively strengthen moderates over the long term.
The process will not be easy. We must learn to differentiate among groups. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political parties that won elections in Egypt and Tunisia are not ideal. But our true enemies – and theirs – are violent Salafist militants. We must judge groups by their actions, not by stereotypes.
The statements by Romney, Ryan and Cheney were, of course, political. All three were trying to create a compelling campaign narrative that appeals to voters: Obama is weak, military might alone can end terrorism, and foreign policy conundrums can be easily solved.
Yet for decades after World War Two, Republican presidents used a sophisticated combination of military force, diplomacy and economics to counter America’s enemies. They deftly created alliances, used American investment to help allies prosper, and patiently persevered. Over the last week, Romney, Ryan and Cheney betrayed that proud tradition.
[David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times. His forthcoming book, “Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East” will be published in March 2013.]