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Right Turn
Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 08/08/2012

Romney foreign policy misstep, a big one

A firestorm has broken out in conservative policy circles over the selection of former Bush foreign policy adviser Robert Zoellick as the transition chief for national security for the Romney campaign. Advisers close to the campaign have told Right Turn Zoellick is already working with the campaign and gathering team members.

Senior advisers to the campaign are at pains to argue that his role will be ministerial. An individual familiar with what the campaign calls the “readiness project” tells Right Turn, “ [Former Utah]Gov. Leavitt heads up the readiness project and has many people helping him. Bob Kagan, Eric Edelman, and Eliot Cohen are all involved in the readiness project and also, separately, provide policy advice to the campaign. The readiness project is not involved in making policy – policy is made by the campaign – and, as you know, Zoellick does NOT advise on policy.” An outside advisor tells Right Turn that Brian Hook, a former Bush official and policy director for Tim Pawlenty (who was praised for strong foreign policy positions), will also be on the national security transition team.

For foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema. As the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as ”soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state. His stint as U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration did nothing too alter his image with foreign policy hardliners. That tenure will no doubt complicate Romney’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor. And in 2011, Zoellick shocked foreign policy gurus by delivering a speech praising China, suggesting that it was a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia, at a time human rights abuses and aggressive conduct in Asia were bedeviling the Obama administration.

As a former managing director of Goldman Sachs, which has been in the spotlight of financial controversies, Zoellick may also be a liability quite apart from his foreign policy views. In addition, in his non-governmental career he also worked as an outside adviser for Enron, the energy trading company that went under and lead to multiple criminal indictments. (Zoellick was not tied to any of the wrongdoing.) Completing a trifecta of controversial associations he also worked for Fannie Mae, as did a number of highly connected Washington insiders who helped Fannie Mae retain its privileged position as a government-supported lender shielded from oversight.

Multiple foreign policy hawks, some of whom have consulted with the Romney team, have voiced their complaints and concerns that Zoellick will color the entire Romney foreign policy apparatus. It also reinforces their concern that Romney’s young national security expert Alex Wong is too inexperienced and unsophisticated to manage a presidential-level foreign policy operation.

Zoellick supporters argue that the transition will not make “policy,” a distinction that is hard to maintain given the connection between policy and personnel. His defenders contend he has bureaucratic experience and connections in the foreign policy community and will be surrounded by advisers with hawkish foreign policy views.

A more sympathetic voice in the foreign policy community not associated with the campaign told me, “Anytime you name someone to a senior post like this - something we’ve been recommending for a long time - you risk the ire of people who disagree with him. That’s going to be the case with someone who’s a well-known realist like Bob. But at the end if the day, it’s Mitt Romney who will be — or won’t be — elected president. Not Bob. And Mitt Romney has not run as a reincarnation of George H.W. Bush, no matter whom he appoints in the campaign.” Other senior advisers say that Zoellick’s role witll be close to that of Joel Shin in the transition of George W. Bush. One put it, “Who the heck is Joel Shin? Well, that’s the point.”

Nevertheless, Zoellick’s critics remain mystified that Zoellick would be put in such a key spot, even if bolstered by stronger voices. The move has alarmed conservatives who say this demonstrates that those at the top of the Romney campaign are short on foreign policy know-how and judgment. As one person close to the campaign put it, “You can’t give those speeches [Romney delivered overseas] and have Bob Zoellick [running transition].”

UPDATE: To clarify, Zoellick in 2005 delivered a speech in which he encouraged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. From 2005 to the present in speeches, articles and interviews (asked in 2009 in Financial Times interview about China’s “scorecard” on acting as a responsible stakeholder he said “I think China has come a long way”), Zoellick repeatedly praised China’s conduct, despite ample signs China was anything but “responsible” and widespread criticism of the policy Zoellick had championed. Given Mitt Romney’s “take China to the WTO” stance and his unsparing criticism of China’s human rights abuses Romney could not be more different in his view of China.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 08/08/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign, foreign policy

 
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