Romney team struggles to sharpen foreign policy message

Every Friday morning, dozens of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisers hold a conference call with top campaign officials.

Some find the calls a useful chance to discuss urgent international crises and long-term strategic issues with like-minded experts, many of them old friends and veterans of Republican administrations.

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Others, who say they see no evidence that their views ever get past the political gatekeepers to the GOP presidential candidate, often find the discussions frustrating.

What is obvious to all of them is that foreign policy doesn’t matter much in a race that will rise or fall on the economy. Despite its daily criticism of President Obama’s management of America’s place in the world, the campaign has struggled to distinguish Romney from the incumbent.

After an overseas trip that left the impression among some Americans and others abroad that the former Massachusetts governor is not ready to steer the country through perilous international waters, senior campaign officials acknowledged that they need to sharpen their message and its delivery.

Beyond the Olympic slights in London and comments in Jerusalem that offended Palestinians, one official said it was a mistake to leave reporters to focus on gaffes, limiting the traveling press corps’ access to the candidate to only three questions on his first day of meetings and not a single news conference after that.

In interviews since Romney’s return, nearly a dozen campaign officials, advisers and GOP conservatives discussed his foreign policy positions and how they are decided and disseminated. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid stealing the candidate’s thunder and, in some cases, to criticize freely.

As the campaign regroups before the nominating convention and heads toward the race’s final stretch, they described specific ways in which Romney would exert American influence far more aggressively than the sitting president.

While Obama has focused on the limits of American power, they said, Romney would engage both allies and adversaries based on a belief that forceful U.S. activism is needed to shape world events.

Among other things, that could mean a more immediate hard-line approach to Iran’s nuclear program that may not appeal to the alliance Obama has formed to negotiate with Tehran.

“We don’t believe that Iran should have any enrichment capability whatsoever,” said Mitchell Reiss, a senior U.S. diplomat and close Romney adviser who also worked on Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. “That is not what current policy is.. . . Can we change our allies’ position? I think we can.”

It could mean more direct U.S. support for Syrian rebels outside the United Nations and broad Friends of Syria framework.

“Obama has been saying for almost a year that [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad must go,” said Dan Senor, a senior Romney campaign official and foreign policy adviser. “It makes America look impotent.”

The shift would change the U.S. role in the Middle East peace process from mediator to open backer of Israel. Romney advisers say that in the past, Israel has shown a willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians when it is confident that its closest ally is behind it no matter what.

Romney “will not stand in the way and throw up more conditions” for Israel at the negotiating table, said Alex Wong, who manages foreign policy and legal issues for the campaign. Similarly, he said, Romney is “not going to make the mistake of Obama, to publicly discourage Israel” from attacking Iran’s nuclear sites.

There could also be a reversal of the NATO-backed missile-defense system that Obama is implementing in Europe and a return to the more ambitious program advocated by the George W. Bush administration.

‘On autopilot’

Critics on the inside are largely supportive of those positions but remain skeptical of the campaign’s ability to project a sophisticated, substantive vision that is not mired in past and current ideological battles.

“They have this theory of the campaign and have been on auto­pilot with it and haven’t adjusted,” said one exasperated Republican foreign policy expert with strong conservative credentials. “It’s all about attacking Obama, when the bigger job is to introduce himself.”

The decision to visit Poland, where Romney hailed the end of Soviet communism and the success of democracy and a free market, made the campaign “look like Rip Van Winkle and they think it’s 1989,” he said.

Within the campaign, Romney’s foreign policy decisions are influenced by a small coterie of mostly political aides, said one of the more than 50 advisers on a list of neoconservative and establishment figures released in October.Issue and geographical committees “do policy papers” that are sent up the chain of command, this adviser said. But “most of it is wasted effort.”

Each campaign develops its own rules and rhythms. Robert J. Dole’s ill-fated 1996 presidential team was “disorganized and disconnected” from the candidate, said a veteran of several Republican races and senior positions in GOP administrations. “I remember being asked for stuff I had handed in three weeks ago.”

The 2000 Bush campaign, in contrast, “was totally buttoned down,” he said. A small group of eight advisers known as the “Vulcans” controlled policy and access to the candidate. Led by Condoleezza Rice, nearly all had served in George H.W. Bush’s administration and ended up in senior policy posts under his son.

Romney’s campaign is similar in structure and problems to Obama’s 2008 team, in which prominent foreign policy advisers felt left out of decisions made by a handful of aides close to the candidate, said James Mann, author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, who has written books about Republican and Democratic foreign-policy-makers.

One difference from George W. Bush’s and Obama’s campaigns, Mann said, is that some of Romney’s closest foreign policy advisers are not considered experts. Two who accompanied the candidate on all or part of his recent trip were former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Kerry Healey and former senator James M. Talent (Mo.), who served on the Armed Services Committee.

They “have every right to be knowledgeable about foreign policy,” Mann said, “but they are not foreign policy hands.”

The inner circle

As in other campaigns, few designated “advisers” have direct access to the candidate. In addition to Healey and Talent, the foreign policy inner circle is said to include Reiss and Senor, who was a spokesman for the initial U.S. occupational government in Iraq and began briefing Romney before his 2008 campaign.

Others include former senator Norm Coleman (Minn.); Eric Edelman, a former Foreign Service officer who was undersecretary of defense for policy in George W. Bush’s second term; and Rich Williamson, who had foreign policy posts in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations and often serves as a spokesman.

Advisers’ input goes via Wong, a young lawyer who usually monitors the weekly telephone conferences. Talking points to support Romney’s public statements or the campaign’s position on breaking news are sent via e-mail to listed advisers, supporters and surrogates who might be called on to comment.

Some in the more moderate GOP foreign policy establishment have shuddered over Romney’s statements saying Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe” and his suggestions of postponing the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Others have expressed private alarm over some of his more outspoken surrogates on the right, in particular John R. Bolton, the neoconservative former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

People who are “wigged out” by Bolton are “overstating his involvement” in the campaign, said one senior adviser. But Bolton is seen as a useful spokesman to the far right, one who can articulately expound on Romney’s virtues and offer the conservative red meat that others might shy away from.

Although reporters at home and abroad may have “hammered” Romney about gaffes overseas, a senior Republican said, “he clearly solidified his position with those inclined to support him anyway and may have won some friends that he didn’t have before.”

“But at the end of the day, it is the economy, stupid,” he said, echoing a famous phrase from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

 
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