Mitt Romney’s inner circle eschews politico labels when discussing his foreign policy stance: neoconservative, paleo-conservative, realist.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his team have tried to move beyond the jargon, talking instead about a return to a view of America as exceptional—a rightful world leader, a strong and true ally, and a fierce foe, with the will and wherewithal to meet threats with decisive military action when required.
Jamie Fly, executive director for the Foreign Policy Initiative, told Human Events he saw the Romney outlook as one that would embody the conservative tradition of peace through strength that dates back to Ronald Reagan, and would abandon attempts to assimilate or shoulder a supporting role on the world stage.
Romney himself said that freedom would be a casualty if America became weak and conciliatory, in a speech at The Citadel last October. “As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century,” he said. “And I will never, ever apologize for America.”
If you do need a metaphor to differentiate his perspective from that of incumbent Barack Obama, the Romney camp would be happy to have you picture Reagan versus Jimmy Carter.
The Gipper is invoked serially during a conference call with two senior Romney foreign policy advisers last week, which was conducted on the condition that the advisers not be named. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, they say, embraces the Reaganite idea of American exceptionalism, a nation that benefits all others by remaining at the top and in the lead. Romney emulates Reagan in shoring up military power and authority as a credible deterrent to other nations that might otherwise pose a military threat.
And like Reagan, Romney courts diversity in his brain trust, they said, welcoming debate and using a variety of inputs to make informed decisions. The comparison of Obama to Carter as a similarly weak leader on the world stage is on its way to becoming a standby in the Romney camp as well.
The former Massachusetts governor himself deployed the comparison with great success at the end of April, when Obama asserted Romney would not have ordered the raid to take out Osama bin Laden if he had been president instead.
“Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order,” Romney scoffed.
In an editorial for Foreign Policy from the same week, Romney campaign special adviser Rich Williamson characterized Obama’s failed attempts at negotiation with a volatile and irresponsible North Korea and amorphous plan for action regarding a Syria in revolt against the dictator Assad (“one part bluster, one part incoherence, and one part paralysis”) as his own “Jimmy Carter moment.”
Romney front-loaded his foreign policy and security positions last fall, publishing a white paper authored by special adviser Eliot Cohen in October 2011 laying out a vision for American leadership secured by stronger alliances with friendly nations and more credible threats to those that represent international menace. He followed up with a speech echoing those themes at the Citadel in South Carolina the same month, promising to stop Obama defense cuts and bolster the nation’s economy to make the country stronger from without and within.
Critics have called Romney’s way forward in foreign policy unclear and untested; in April, Vice President Joe Biden attacked his position as “a foreign policy that would have America go it alone.”
Obama’s ‘toothless engagement’
Romney’s advisers say this merely deflects from an insistence by Obama on “leading from behind” and presiding willingly over a “managed decline” of the nation, while watching other world powers come to the fore. In Iran, for example, the Romney team sees a president who promised to halt the Iranian nuclear threat, but opted for toothless engagement rather than credible threats of force.
Romney wants a negotiated solution in Iran and has promised to continue use of harsh economic sanctions as a tool–a strategy for which he actually gave Obama credit in his October white paper–but has said that unlike the president, he would not shy away from military action if necessary to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear.
What constitutes reason to carry out such a threat?
You know it when you see it, said a Romney adviser. The advisers did not mention concrete criteria such as the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine, which guided George H.W. Bush in the first Gulf War and derived its name from Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. Romney has also stayed away from specifics, saying in a Republican debate last fall that military action in Iran should be pursued if all other options fail.
The roster of 22 foreign policy and security advisers is conspicuously full of officials who served in the George W. Bush administration, and contains about a half-dozen former members and contributors to the now-defunct Project for a New American Century, a group of mostly hawkish conservatives that coalesced in the late 1990s to promote “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.”
But the list also includes former elected officials, leading scholars from a spectrum of think tanks including the left-leaning Brookings Institution, the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, and others, and people who worked with Romney while he was governor of Massachusetts.
Romney’s senior policy advisers who spoke with Human Events expressed little concern about a recent New York Times op-ed anonymously citing various Romney foreign policy advisers saying their views didn’t line up with some of the candidate’s public statements.
That was the strength of Romney as a businessman, one adviser said: he courted debate, listening to many voices, and making informed decisions based on their input. The common thread uniting the foreign policy and security team that Romney has assembled is that all are experienced professionals, respected in their field, Romney advisers said.
“The one thing about Governor Romney is he likes people to test their ideas,” said Alex Wong, Foreign Policy Director for the campaign. “He’s not afraid of ideas. He’s not afraid of disagreement. This is the way he’s always governed and always ran his businesses.”
Can he beat the president who killed bin Laden?
At the end of the day, Romney must face off on foreign policy and national security against an incumbent who claims to have single-handedly eliminated Osama bin Laden. Are his ideas robust enough to win the issue?
Veteran Republican campaign strategist Karl Rove said the Obama administration’s attacks on Romney’s inexperience were a red herring to direct attention away from the president’s own failures.
“Obama’s reset with the Middle Eastern dictators didn’t work too well…wherever he’s succeeded is basically because he’s done more to follow in the steps of his predecessor and has basically ignored his own campaign promises,” Rove told Human Events. “The president is seen as a weak leader internationally, and that’s not good for our country.”
Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, said Romney’s positions were stronger than the president’s, even though he faced some natural disadvantages as the challenger in the race. “I think any challenger to an incumbent president faces an uphill battle in terms of convincing the electorate that he can be commander in chief,” Fly said.
He noted that President Obama has some tactical pyrotechnics at his disposal that Romney does not. For example, a last minute, surprise trip to Kabul, Afghanistan at the beginning of the month to give a speech that dominated the news cycle for days. But the president’s showmanship, he said, might not be enough to camouflage his failures.
“I think that Governor Romney, if you look at his speech in the Citadel, he’s laid out a case for strong leadership in the world, for reinvigorating our alliances,” Fly said. “The administration really has nothing they can point to in terms of successes in these areas.”
Romney should also make hay, he said, of President Obama’s utter disregard for his senior military leadership in setting a rigid deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan that was much earlier than they advised.
“I think what Governor Romney and his campaign have highlighted is at key moments over the last three years, President Obama has shown a hesitance to fully back the recommendations of his commanders,” Fly said. “My guess is a Romney administration would consult more closely with military commanders and respect their advice.”
A point of consensus among experts who spoke with Human Events was that elections are rarely won on the strength of a foreign policy platform, and this one is likely to be no different.
Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of National Security Network, said the vote on security and defense would come down to a “gut issue” for many voters.
“Once you get to the general election, what the voters want it a presidential candidate who grasps the idea of keeping Americans safe and who will do a reasonable job at it,” she said.
But Fly said failure on the part of the voters to consider adequately the president’s role in security and foreign policy may have helped to elect a leader seen as weak on the world stage.
“We had a situation in 2008 where I do not think President Obama was elected because of his national security positions, he was elected because of the economy,” Fly said. “(The voters) need to remember that when they elect a president, they are electing a commander-in-chief. It’s important to have a comprehensive discussion about U.S. national security policy.”