Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney striding onto the debate stage. (Photo credit: mittromney.com)
Mitt Romney's peculiar sense of geography -- thinking Iran was some landlocked country that needed Syria as a "route to the sea" -- may have raised some eyebrows over Romney's lack of basic knowledge, but another part of the same answer, referring to the civil war in Syria as "an opportunity," should have raised more alarm.
Though Romney's goal in Monday's foreign policy debate was to downplay his warlike neoconservative stands, his reference to the Syrian chaos as "an opportunity" suggests that his more moderate rhetoric is just another ploy to deceive voters and win the election, not a real abandonment of neocon strategies.
So, the neocons don't really mind that Romney has suddenly abandoned many of their cherished positions, such as extending the Afghan War beyond 2014 and returning U.S. troops to Iraq. The neocons understand the political need for Romney to calm independent voters who fear that he may be another George W. Bush.
In Monday's debate, Romney said, "Syria's an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a -- a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us."
The "route to the sea" comment -- with its faint echo of a distant time in geopolitics -- represented proof that Romney lacks even a rudimentary knowledge of world geography, since much of Iran's southern territory fronts on the Persian Gulf and Iran could only reach Syria by transiting Iraq. Syria and Iran have no common border.
But more significantly, Romney was revealing the crucial connection between the neocon desire for "regime change" in Syria and the neocon determination to strangle Israel's close-in enemies, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Romney's demand for a new Syrian government of "responsible people" further suggests that the Republican presidential nominee shares the core neocon fantasy that the United States can simply remove one unsavory Middle East dictator and install a pro-Western, Israel-friendly leader who will then shut off aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
That was the central fallacy in the Iraq War, the notion that United States with its unparalleled military might could shift the Mideast's political dynamics to Israel's advantage through coercive "regime change." In Iraq, the U.S. military eliminated Saddam Hussein but then saw a new Iraqi government ally itself with Iran.
The new Iraq may be less of a military threat, but it has not reached out and embraced Israel as some neocons had hoped. Indeed, by removing Hussein's Sunni-controlled regime -- and ending up with a Shiite-dominated one -- Bush's Iraq War essentially eliminated a major bulwark against the regional influence of Iran's Shiite regime.
Dream Still Alive
Yet, despite the bloody and costly catastrophe in Iraq, the heart of the neocon dream is still beating -- and Romney's comment indicates that he shares its illusions. Dating back at least to the mid-1990s, the neocon idea has been to use violent or coercive "regime change" in Muslim countries to secure Israel's security.
The neocons' first target may have been Iraq, but that was never the endgame. The strategy was to make Iraq into a military base for then removing the governments of Iran and Syria. Back in the heady days of 2002-2003, a neocon joke posed the question of what to do after ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- whether to next go east to Iran or west to Syria. The punch-line was: "Real men go to Tehran."
According to the neocon grand plan, once pro-Israeli governments were established in Iran, Iraq and Syria, Israel's hostile neighbors, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, would lose their benefactors and shrivel up, without money or weapons. Then, Israel could dictate its terms for peace and security.
This neocon strategy emerged after the lopsided U.S. victory in Kuwait, in which President George H.W. Bush demonstrated the leaps-and-bounds advantage of the high-tech U.S. military over the Iraqi army whose soldiers were literally blown to bits by U.S. missiles and "smart bombs" while American casualties were kept to a minimum.
After that 1991 victory, it became conventional wisdom in Washington that no army on earth could withstand the sophisticated killing power of the U.S. military. That belief -- combined with frustration over Israel's stalemated conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah -- led American neocons to begin thinking about a new approach, "regime change" across the Middle East.
The early outlines of this aggressive concept for remaking the Middle East emerged in 1996 when a group of neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for Israel's Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu during his campaign for prime minister.