Over the final month of the campaign, CJR will run a series of posts under the headline “Ask Obama This” and “Ask Romney This,” suggesting questions that reporters should pose to the presidential candidates. The first installment focused on President Obama and his jobs plan. This one on Mitt Romney and foreign policy.

It’s complicated. It’s inseparable from US domestic politics. And it can shoulder aside every other White House priority.

Those three realities about the Middle East have dogged American presidents since Harry Truman, who, when warned by his State Department advisers that recognizing the new state of Israel would have long-term foreign policy implications, reportedly replied: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

The 1973 Yom Kippur war put an end to Richard Nixon’s ambitious peace effort, the Iran hostage crisis destroyed the Carter presidency, and the Beirut Marine barracks bombing and the so-called Iran-Contra Affair deeply embarrassed Ronald Reagan. Those are just a few examples of how the Middle East can be the tail that wags the presidential dog. As The Washington Post’s Patrick Tyler titled his excellent book on US engagement with the region, the Middle East has been nothing but A World of Trouble for American presidents.

Like so many other presidential hopefuls, Mitt Romney says he will, as the headline on his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed put it, set “a new course for the Middle East.” The core problem, he argues in the article, is that the US is “at the mercy of events rather than shaping them.” Yet reporters who know the region will tell you it’s hard to remember a time when that wasn’t the case, the Camp David Accords being the one possible exception to the rule. The Bush administration did, as promised, create “a new Middle East,” but I suspect this is not the Middle East Bush & Co. had in mind.

The primary foreign policy manifesto of the Romney campaign is titled, “An American Century—A Strategy To Secure America’s Enduring Interests And Ideals.” The idea is to seed American “values” around the world, and particularly in what the Bush administration dubbed the “Greater Middle East,” a term the Romney campaign has embraced (it includes Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with what we traditionally call the Middle East).
This broad approach is built around what is often called “American Exceptionalism,” and on the notion that, as Ronald Reagan once declared, “We are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”

Not everyone else in the world buys that. In fact, America’s view of itself as the world’s savior has a lot to do with our miserable favorability ratings in the Muslim world, since not everyone wants to be told we know best. So the first question is: What do you say to people overseas who tell you American Exceptionalism is just American arrogance?
In his September 29 weekly podcast on American Exceptionalism, Romney gives the big picture (“I’ll call terrorism what it is”), and in his Oct. 8 foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Academy Institute, he repeatedly emphasized his belief that “we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East.” But both leave plenty of ground for reporters to question exactly what a Greater Middle East policy in a Romney administration might look like.

Do those American values he seeks to impart include democratic elections? If so, how will his administration “shape” the outcome to prevent anti-American regimes from emerging? And what will he do if the “wrong” people are elected—leaders who might think their values trump American values?

Do those values Romney favors include human rights? Obama took a pragmatic, some would say cynical, approach to the uprising in Bahrain. Would Romney support a democracy movement there? If not, why not?

Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, gave the big foreign policy address at the GOP convention. American Exceptionalism and American values played a central role in that administration’s approach to the Middle East. To what extent is Bush foreign policy a model for Romney? What does he believe were the advantages and disadvantages of the Bush approach?

“Only strength and clarity can keep the peace,” Romney said in his Sept. 29 podcast. That sounds a lot like the post-9/11 call for a foreign policy built on “military strength and moral clarity” issued by the Project for the New American Century, the neoconservative group widely credited with influencing Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

Which raises the obvious question: How will a Romney administration demonstrate “strength and clarity” without getting the US bogged down in another costly war?

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.