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Middle East Expert Weighs In On Presidential Debate

10-23-12

The focus of the final presidential debate, which was held last night, was foreign affairs, and it was dominated by talk of the Middle East. NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider sat down with Hamid Abdeljaber, Professor at Rutgers’ Center for Middle East Studies, to get his take on the candidates’ positions.

Abdeljaber, who spent 25 years working in and around the Middle East for the United Nations, says he found last night’s debate interesting in that Republican challenger Mitt Romney essentially adopted most of President Obama’s foreign policy positions.

“[Romney] supported [Obama] in his effort in Afghanistan to withdraw by 2014, he supported him in not going to the military option in Syria, he supported him in imposing hard sanctions in Iran and he supported him in a variety of issues — supporting the Arab spring and demonstrations of those young Egyptians and Tunisians for democracy and dignity,” said Abdeljaber.

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There was so much agreement on the part of Romney that Abdeljaber says he failed to identify what Romney was projecting as his own foreign policy vision. And this may have been a missed opportunity for Romney. He says that while Obama has the advantage of experience when it comes to foreign affairs, the President’s record has gaps that are ripe for criticism.

“[Obama] didn’t succeed all the times and there are a few things he promised to do and to bring back America to its rightful place as a world leader,” Abdeljaber pointed out.

With the focus of the discussion so much on the Middle East, Abdeljaber was asked how the candidates’ responses may be perceived in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. But what was not said may have been more telling. Abdeljaber says the glaring omission of Palestine ignores one of the root causes of conflict in the Middle East.

“If the candidates would address that issue, it would send a very clear, positive message of the candidates,” said Abdeljaber. “That’s why Obama was very much well received in his first term when he sent George Mitchell as his special envoy and he spoke at Cairo University on June 5, 2009, promising that he would help create an independent, viable Palestine state.”

Last night, Romney claimed that President Obama “apologized” for the United States’ behavior in the region during an overseas trip to Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Abdeljaber disagrees with Romney’s claim that Obama’s trip was an apology tour.

“[It] was in fact a stretching hand and improving the image of the United States which has been honestly and, speaking a little frankly, was a little bit distorted during those years, especially after the war in Iraq which was not endorsed by the [UN] Security Council,” said Abdeljaber. Many leaders and the peoples of that region consider that war was unnecessary, illegal, whatever you want to call it and it distorted the relations between the United States and the people of the region.”