Mitt Romney has preferred to keep to economic issues in his presidential campaign, but when he has turned to foreign policy he’s revealed the influence of the muscular, with-us-or-against-us neoconservative thinking that waxed strong in the George W. Bush administration.
That was true last week when Governor Romney excoriated President Obama for what he said was a weak and apologetic response to anti-American violence in the Middle East. It came through again Tuesday in the video that surfaced with Romney telling donors in Florida that the Palestinians “have no interest whatsoever” in peace.
“We’re seeing in Romney’s pronouncements the strain of the Vulcans, the extremist form of vulcanism together with the evangelical position on Israel,” says Geoffrey Kemp, a foreign policy expert at Washington’s Center for the National Interest, a realist think tank. “It’s very, very unlike the Republican foreign policy we knew before George W. Bush.”
The Vulcans refers to the foreign-policy team that candidate Bush assembled and that continued to advise him in his presidency after the 9/11 attacks and that in particular prodded him to wage a war of choice in Iraq that was supposed to result in a reformed and pro-American Middle East.
The neoconservatives’ unapologetic approach to the world and America’s role in it – criticized as shoot first and consider the consequences later – was thought by many foreign policy experts to have suffered a humiliating fall over the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
But Romney’s foreign policy pronouncements suggest not only that the neocons are back, but that – when compared with the traditional multilateral internationalism exemplified by the first President Bush – they are in the driver’s seat.
“People like [former secretary of state] James Baker and George H. W. Bush must be very troubled by what they are hearing,” says Mr. Kemp, who served in the White House under President Reagan. “They can’t help but feel that their brand of American foreign policy is not what they’re hearing from the Republican candidate.”
One of Romney’s chief foreign policy advisers is Dan Senor, who hails from the Bush Iraq war team. Mr. Senor has also been assigned to polishing vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s foreign policy credentials, and some foreign policy analysts insist that the voice of the Iraq war enthusiast could be heard in Mr. Ryan’s assault last week on the Obama foreign policy for its lack of “moral clarity” and “firmness of purpose.”
It was Senor who orchestrated Romney’s trip to Israel in July – a trip that among other things underscored Romney’s complete abandonment of the American role of peace facilitator that Republican and Democratic administrations alike have cultivated.
That disregard for the peace process came through even more clearly in the video that surfaced this week, in which Romney says, “I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there’s just no way.”
The influence of Romney’s neocon advisers was also evident in the candidate’s and his campaign’s blistering attacks on Obama’s response to the anti-American violence that has targeted US interests in the Middle East and across the Muslim world over a video made in the US that denigrates Islam.
Romney accused Obama of sympathizing with the protesters, and his aides suggested that a President Romney would set such a firm, no-apologies-for-American-superiority course that no one would dare attack US interests.
Commenting on the violent attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of four US diplomats, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, US diplomat and Romney adviser Richard Williamson told the Washington Post, “There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation.”
Yet while Romney’s pronouncements and some of his positions – hints he’d back an Israeli decision to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, and promises to brand China a currency manipulator from Day 1 of his presidency – suggest an aggressive and hawkish foreign policy, some key Romney appointments point in a different direction.
Some political analysts saw in Romney’s naming in August of former World Bank president and Republican foreign policy moderate Robert Zoellick to head his national security transition team the harbinger of a more cautious and multilateral approach to the world.
The Zoellick appointment elicited howls of disdain from conservative foreign policy hardliners, but giving such a key post to a James Baker protégé suggests to some observers that Romney, if elected, would approach the world from a more traditional center.
“If Romney were to be elected president, his foreign policy would probably be quite reasonable because hopefully he’d have people like Zoellick around him,” Kemp says. “You might think from some of the things he’s said that he’d be the president who would attack Iran and slap sanctions on China his first day in office. But my guess is he’d listen to his military establishment, and he’d realize the dire economic straits we’d be in if he started a war in the Middle East.”