Romney’s attacks on Obama foreign policy show neocons’ dominance

September 13, 2012

Inside the swag bags that reporters received at the Republican National Convention last month were copies of Mitt Romney’s book “No Apology.”

In an election predicated on jobs and the economy, the candidate’s foreign policy treatise, which articulates his hawkish views and his belief that Barack Obama had turned his presidency into an apology tour, seemed about as useful as the sunglasses, suntan lotion and hand fans offered during a hurricane scare.

But recent events have rendered Romney’s vision for the world relevant again. Among the twists of the past two weeks: Romney’s failure to so much as mention the war in Afghanistan or the soldiers fighting America’s wars in his speech accepting the Republican nomination; violent protests outside U.S. embassies in the Arab world; the murder of an American ambassador in Libya; and Romney’s own unapologetically Obama-blaming, hard-line response.

“Because of the events going on for the last 24 to 48 hours, I think it’s going to take a much different perspective,” former ambassador Tibor P. Nagy, who advises Romney on Africa issues, said of the campaign. “At the end of the day, American national security and existential threats can move to the front of the stove with just a nudge.”

On Friday morning, the campaign’s foreign policy advisers will participate in a regular conference call in which the chaos in the Arab world “will be top tier,” according to another of the advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the campaign.

Nagy, who has not personally seen Romney since the campaign started, could not articulate Romney’s views on the campaign’s newly pressing issue. “I’m not in any position to judge,” he said.

That fogginess about Romney’s worldview was partly a function of the emphasis on economics so far, but also on the costs of talking globally when a sizable portion of the Republican base, including Ron Paul isolationists and fiscal conservatives, does not want anything to with the world outside America’s borders. That leaves George H.W. Bush-era realists, who advocate a modest foreign policy focused on U.S. interests, and George W. Bush-era neoconservative interventionists as the two available ideological schools to which Romney can subscribe.

His reaction this week made it clear that when it comes to Republican foreign policy, the neocons are still the only game in town.

“This is probably where most of the numbers are right now in the Republican foreign policy firmament and where most of the energy is,” one prominent realist who has advised several Republican presidents lamented. “It’s the path of least resistance as a Republican.”

Alex Wong, Romney’s foreign policy director, refused to utter the word “neoconservative” or to characterize the candidate as an adherent of neoconservatism, ­instead repeating only that Romney believes in “peace through strength.” But Romney and his advisers — Wong declined to say whether they were consulted before the candidate weighed in on the the embassy chaos — are tripling down on the clear contrasts offered by neoconservatism’s trumpeting of values, which lends itself nicely to campaign seasons but is more complicated in actual governance (see the war in Iraq). Never mind that Obama’s intervention in Libya occurred against the wishes of many practitioners of realpolitik, or that Romney publicly argued both for and against intervention in Libya. Romney’s campaign advisers believed that embassy messages calibrated to defuse anger over a film denigrating Islam reflected the administration’s apologetic squishiness, and they pounced.

As events were still developing, and before the announcement of the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Romney said: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” When events had developed, he reiterated to reporters that he thought it was a “terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

Many Republicans condemned Romney’s remarks as rash and inappropriate, and his remarks had the immediate consequence of causing himself grief and extending a temporary reprieve to Obama in what is an extremely difficult political situation for a president.

Even some of Romney’s advisers were not quite sure what to make of his response to the attacks.

“I won’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” Nagy said of Romney’s remarks.

“I haven’t seen them,” Andrew S. Natsios, an executive professor at Texas A&M University’s George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service who is also a Romney adviser, said Wednesday evening about the remarks made Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. “I’ve been in meetings with students all day.”

Some realists in the Republican Party did pay close attention and were appalled.

“I don’t know on foreign policy how developed a worldview he has. I can’t characterize it,” said the prominent realist. “Candidates always want to get elected. You haven’t heard from him the articulation of an alternative foreign policy as much as selective criticisms of Obama.” Romney’s response, the adviser said, “seems mainly designed for tactical advantage. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that he has a strategy of his own.”

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that previous lack of clarity was simply a result of a lack of demand from the electorate for Romney to state his global vision.

“We have a limited sense of where he stands on foreign policy because this election has been about the economy,” she said. “Ideally, he is able to carve his own way and pick the best of all the strains of the Republican Party.”

But the mere indication that Romney was willing to shop around for ideas caused a backlash amid the dominant neo­conservative strain.

Romney’s selection in August of Robert B. Zoellick, a former World Bank president, James Baker protege and prominent figure among realist practitioners of foreign policy, to lead his national security transition planning momentarily gave realists hope. It also prompted neoconservatives to go ballistic. “Senior advisers to the campaign are at pains to argue that his role will be ministerial,” Washington Post blogger, neoconservative booster and Romney campaign channeler Jennifer Rubin wrote in an August blog post. “For foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema.”

“People were scratching their head, saying, ‘Where did this come from?’ ” said one of the Romney advisers, who placed the blame for Zoellick on the transition chairman, former Utah governor Michael O. Leavitt. Romney, the adviser said, must have been distracted with travel. (“I don’t have anything for you there,” Wong said.)

But after Romney’s aggressive response this week and his calls for increased emphasis on American strength and values in the face of angry mobs, those neocons have been put at ease.

“I understood exactly what he was saying,” said one of the Romney advisers, who was unbothered by the fact that the foreign policy team was not consulted before Romney responded to the events in Egypt and Libya. “It was from the governor and the core team,” said the adviser, adding: “People can challenge the timing, but he made a clear statement on how he sees the role of the United States.”

It is, as advertised, an unapologetic statement.

“As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we’re at the mercy of events instead of shaping events,” Romney said Thursday in Virginia. “And a strong America is essential to shape events.”

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