Mitt Romney’s Neocon War Cabinet
Ari Berman, Nation, May 2 2012
It’s safe to say that foreign policy was not the strong suit of this year’s contenders for the GOP presidential nomination. Rick Perry labeled the Turkish government “Islamic terrorists.” Newt Gingrich referred to Palestinians as “invented” people. Herman Cain called Uzbekistan “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” and memorably blanked when asked what he thought of NATO’s incursion into Libya. Michele Bachmann pledged to close the US embassy in Iran, which hasn’t existed since 1980. Rick Santorum gave a major foreign policy speech at a Jelly Belly factory in California. Yet though the candidates and their views were often hard to take seriously, their statements on foreign policy reflected a more disturbing trend in the GOP. Despite facing a war-weary public, the candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, positioned themselves as unapologetic war hawks. That included Mitt Romney, marginally more polished than his rivals but hardly an expert. Given Romney’s well-established penchant for flip-flopping and opportunism, it’s difficult to know what he really believes on any issue, including foreign affairs. But a comprehensive review of his statements during the primary and his choice of advisers suggests a return to the hawkish, unilateral interventionism of the Bush 43 administration should he win the White House in November.
Romney is loath to mention Bush on the campaign trail, for obvious reasons, but today they sound like ideological soul mates on foreign policy. Listening to Romney, you’d never know that Bush left office bogged down by two unpopular wars that cost the US dearly in blood and treasure. Of Romney’s forty identified foreign policy advisers, more than 70% worked for Bush. Many hail from the neoconservative wing of the party, were enthusiastic backers of the Iraq War and are proponents of a USraeli attack on Iran. On some key issues, like Iran, Romney and his team are to the right of Bush. Romney’s embrace of the neoconservative cause, even if done cynically to woo the right, could turn into a policy nightmare if he becomes president. If we take the candidate at his word, a Romney presidency would move toward war against Iran; closely align Washington with the Israeli right; leave troops in Afghanistan at least until 2014 and refuse to negotiate with the Taliban; reset the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia; and pursue a Reagan-like military buildup at home. The Washington Monthly dubbed Romney’s foreign policy vision the “more enemies, fewer friends” doctrine, which is chillingly reminiscent of the world Obama inherited from Bush. In March, reported the WaPo:
Richard Land, a longtime leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that after a private dinner with Romney last year at a Washington restaurant, Romney’s advisers have been in regular touch. Land said he recently told them that Romney could win over recalcitrant conservatives by picking Marco Rubio as his vice presidential running mate and previewing a few Cabinet selections: Santorum as attorney general, Gingrich as ambassador to the UN and John Bolton as Sec State.
That suggestion, which might seem ludicrous, not to mention terrifying, is more plausible than one might think. In December, Gingrich pledged at a forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition that he would appoint Bolton to run Foggy Bottom. But the mustachioed über-hawk, who was Under-Sec State for arms control and UN ambassador in the Bush administration, endorsed Romney instead. Bolton has since campaigned energetically for him, serving as a key surrogate on national security issues. Jennifer Rubin wrote on her WaPo blog:
Bolton said, “I’ll do whatever they’d like me to.” Many conservatives hope that would include accepting a senior national security post in a Romney administration.
Few advisers personify the pugnacity of Romney’s foreign policy team better than Bolton. He has been a steadfast opponent of international organizations and treaties and seems never to have met a war he didn’t like. Shortly before the invasion of Iraq, he told Israeli officials that Syria, Iran and North Korea would be the next US targets. Over the past few years Bolton has been an outspoken proponent of an Israeli attack on Iran. Bolton said when endorsing Romney on Jan 11:
Mitt Romney will restore our military, repair relations with our closest allies and ensure that no adversary, including Iran, ever questions USAian resolve.
John’s wisdom, clarity and courage are qualities that should typify our foreign policy.
Romney knew little about foreign policy when he ran for president in 2008. An internal dossier of John McCain’s presidential campaign said at the time:
Romney’s foreign affairs resume is extremely thin, leading to credibility problems.
After being branded as too liberal by conservative GOP activists four years ago, Romney aligned himself with Bolton and other neocons in 2012 to protect his right flank. Today there’s little daylight between the candidate and his most militant advisers. Bolton is one of eight Romney advisers who signed the PNAC letters urging the Clinton and Bush administrations to attack Iraq. PNAC founding member Paula Dobriansky, leading advocate of Bush’s ill-fated “freedom agenda” as an official in the State Dept, recently joined the Romney campaign full time. Another PNAC founder, Eliot Cohen, counselor to Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2009, wrote the foreword to the Romney campaign’s foreign policy white paper, which was titled, perhaps not coincidentally, “A USAian Century.” Cohen was a tutor to Bush administration neocons. Following 9/11, he dubbed the war on terror “WW4,” arguing that Iraq, being an “obvious candidate, having not only helped Al Qaeda, but developed weapons of mass destruction,” should be its center. In 2009 Cohen urged the Obama administration to “actively seek the overthrow” of Iran’s government. The Romney campaign released the white paper and its initial roster of foreign policy advisers in October to coincide with Romney’s speech at The Citadel, a gauzy defense of US exceptionalism, a theme the candidate adopted from another PNAC founder and Romney adviser, Robert Kagan. The speech and white paper were long on distortions, claiming that Obama believed “there is nothing unique about the US” and “issued apologies for USAia” abroad, and short on policy proposals. The few substantive ideas were costly and bellicose: increasing the number of warships the Navy builds per year from nine to fifteen (five more than the service requested in its 2012 budget), boosting the size of the military by 100,000 troops, placing a missile defense system in Europe and stationing two aircraft carriers near Iran. Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation comments:
What he articulated in the Citadel speech was one of the most inchoate, disorganized, cliché-filled foreign policy speeches that any serious candidate has ever given.
Romney’s team is notable for including Bush aides tarnished by the Iraq fiasco: Robert Joseph, the National Security Council official who inserted the infamous “sixteen words” in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union message claiming that Iraq had tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger; Dan Senor, former spokesman for the hapless Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer in Iraq; and Eric Edelman, a top official at the Pentagon under Bush. Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute says:
Romney’s likely to be in the mold of Bush 43 when it comes to foreign policy if he were elected. I can’t name a single Romney foreign policy adviser who believes the Iraq War was a mistake. Two-thirds of the US people do believe the Iraq War was a mistake. So he has willingly chosen to align himself with that one-third of the population right out of the gate.
Shortly after McCain’s 2008 defeat, Kagan, Edelman, Senor and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol launched the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neocon successor to PNAC. FPI’s mission has been to keep the Bush doctrine alive in the Obama era, supporting a troop increase in Afghanistan and opposing a 2014 withdrawal; advocating a 20,000-troop residual force in Iraq; backing a military strike and/or regime change in Iran; promoting military intervention in Syria; urging a more confrontational posture toward Russia; and opposing cuts in military spending. Three of FPI’s four board members are advising Romney. Edelman, having worked for Dick Cheney in both Bush administrations, is Romney’s link to Cheneyworld. Edelman suggested the idea of leaking Valerie Plame’s identity to Scooter Libby. As ambassador to Turkey in 2003, Edelman failed to persuade Ankara to support the Iraq War. Turkish columnist Ibrahim Karagul called him “probably the least-liked and trusted US ambassador in Turkish history.” Edelman later moved to the Defense Dept, where in 2007 he became infamous for scolding Hillary Clinton when she asked how the Pentagon was planning its withdrawal from Iraq. He’s one of nearly a dozen of Romney advisers who have urged that the US consider an attack on Iran. Senor is best known for his disastrous stint in Iraq under Bremer, when the US disbanded the Iraqi Army and tried to privatize the economy. In his book on Iraq, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the WaPo wrote of Senor:
His efforts to spin failures into successes sometimes reached the point of absurdity.
Senor is particularly close to the Israeli right, co-writing the 2009 book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, which reads like an extended investment brochure. He now serves as a conduit between Romney and Netanyahu. After the NYT ran a story about the close friendship of the two men, which dates to the late 1970s, Senor tweeted:
Mitt-Bibi will be the new Reagan-Thatcher.
A mixture of domestic politics (trying to make Obama appear weak and courting conservative elements of the Jewish vote) and neocon ideology has led Romney to call for everything short of war on Iran. He wrote in a Mar 5 WaPo op-ed:
Either the ayatollahs will get the message, or they will learn some very painful lessons about the meaning of USAian resolve.
Romney has been similarly hawkish on military spending, another neocon priority. His plan to spend a minimum of 4% of GDP on the Pentagon would increase its budget by more than $200b in 2016, a 38% hike over Obama’s budget, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Merrill Goozner wrote in the Fiscal Times:
Romney’s proposal to embark on a second straight decade of escalating military spending would be the first time in US history that war preparation and defense spending had increased as a share of overall economic activity for such an extended period. When coupled with the 20% cut in taxes he promises, it would require shrinking domestic spending to levels not seen since the Great Depression, before programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid began. Such cuts would likely throw the US economy back into recession.
Since the 2010 election, military spending has been a topic of great debate on the right. Fiscal conservatives like Grover Norquist’s USAians for Tax Reform and the Cato Institute have urged Congress to consider serious Pentagon cuts. Twenty-three conservative leaders, led by Norquist, wrote to Congressional Republicans in Nov 2010:
Dept of Defense spending, in particular, has been provided protected status that has isolated it from serious scrutiny and allowed the Pentagon to waste billions in taxpayer money.
Huntsman echoed during the primary campaign:
Simply advocating more ships, more troops and more weapons isn’t a viable path forward.
That view met a furious pushback from the Defending Defense coalition, a joint project of FPI, the AEI and the Heritage Foundation, which mirrored Romney’s plan to increase military spending drastically. Norquist said on Capitol Hill last year:
When the Soviet Union disappeared, a lot of people on the right failed to notice.
Romney hasn’t said what he’d do with a bigger military or how he’d pay for it. But it’s safe to assume the money will go toward preserving or enlarging the national security state. Romney’s counter-terrorism adviser since 2007 has been former CIA operative Cofer Black, another figure from the Bush era. The Daily Beast calls Black “Romney’s trusted envoy to the dark side” and “the campaign’s in-house intelligence officer.” In 2007 Romney sourced Black in refusing to classify waterboarding as torture, and also said he wanted to “double Guantánamo.” As head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center following 9/11, Black supervised the agency’s “extraordinary rendition” program. Black infamously testified before Congress:
After 9/11 the gloves come off.
He joined Blackwater in 2005, specializing in intelligence gathering for governments and business. More recently, the Daily Beast reported, Romney has relied on Black for security assessments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Iran, including Iran’s nuclear program. The hardliners on Romney’s team have sidelined moderates like Mitchell Reiss, the candidate’s principal foreign policy adviser in 2008 and former director of policy planning at the State Dept under Colin Powell. In Dec 2011, Romney disavowed Reiss’s call to negotiate with the Taliban, pledging to defeat the insurgency militarily, which few foreign policy experts believe is realistic, and criticizing the Obama administration’s plan to begin withdrawing troops next year. Romney also sided with the likes of Senor over Reiss by backing the Bush surge in Iraq and Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan. This black-and-white worldview is dangerously myopic, obsessed with military power and evil foes while ignoring complex challenges like Europe’s economic crisis and the Arab Spring. Vice Pres Biden said recently:
They see the world through a cold war prism that is totally out of touch with the realities of the twenty-first century.
Romney’s case for election rests on his credentials as a competent businessman who can restructure the economy and government. Yet his choice of foreign policy advisers undercuts that sales pitch by elevating radical ideologues who want to spend profligately on unnecessary weapons and wars. If Romney wants to run a fiscally prudent and well-managed country, his GOP model should be Eisenhower, not Bush. But someone like Ike would never make it through a Republican primary today. This year’s GOP primary was supposed to showcase a long-simmering party debate on foreign policy. The NYT reported last June:
The hawkish consensus on national security that has dominated Republican foreign policy for the last decade is giving way to a more nuanced view.
What was left of the moderate wing of the party was particularly excited about the campaign of Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China, who opposed the war in Afghanistan and advocated “a more judicious approach toward foreign entanglements.” Huntsman advisers included realist Republicans like former Bush 41 national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Deputy Sec State Richard Armitage and CFR chair Richard Haass. Yet Huntsman withered under blistering attacks from the neocons and other GOP standard-bearers, including John McCain and Lindsay Graham. Ron Paul’s isolationist views didn’t help him in the primaries, either. Indeed, Romney veered right in response to Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Perry and Santorum rather than left to appeal to Huntsman or Paul voters. After the twin disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, you’d think Republicans would be more skeptical of interventionism and the neocons more humbled. Yet the party’s major neoconservative institutions, like FPI, AEI and Heritage, have pushed aggressively for US intervention in Libya, Iran and Syria. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Powell, asks:
How do you get out of this state of interminable war? My party has not a clue. In fact, they want to deepen it, widen it and go further, on Chinese and Japanese dollars. I’m astonished by how much the neocons seem to still have influence, and I’m scared to death.
I asked Cato’s Preble why the neocons haven’t lost more clout in GOP circles after the failures of the Bush years. Preble says:
They’ve crafted this narrative around the surge, claiming Iraq was, in fact, a success. They’ve ridden that ever since.
Today there’s a striking disconnect between the neocon establishment in Washington and the beliefs of GOP voters. 52% of Republicans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, an all-time high. 71% of self-identified conservative voters are worried about the war’s costs, and 57% agree that “the US can dramatically lower the number of troops in Afghanistan without putting USAia at risk.” Preble asks:
Where is this grassroots movement for open-ended US interventionism abroad? It doesn’t exist. In fact, public sentiment is in the opposite direction.
Yet only two GOP senators, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, voted in March to support an expedited timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The likes of McCain and Graham, who advocate a longer US commitment there and elsewhere, continue to speak for the party establishment. Another top Romney foreign policy adviser, Richard Williamson, who served as Bush’s special envoy to Sudan, advised the McCain campaign in 2008. Only 1% of Republicans named Afghanistan as their top issue in the latest WaPot/ABC News poll. With the party base focused on other issues, the neocons have filled the vacuum. Preble jokes:
There are more neoconservative think tanks than there are neoconservatives. The neoconservatives, I’ll concede, have a very good ground game. They have a network of institutions in Washington that are very effective and vocal. They have a friendly audience in many of the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines. That gives them a significant leg up in terms of making these arguments.
His boss at Cato, Ed Crane, calls them “a head without a body.” They have clearly overwhelmed the libertarians and realists. Elder statesmen from the Bush 41 administration like Powell and Scowcroft are much closer to Obama than to Romney. Heather Hurlburt of the center-left National Security Network says:
The foreign policy experts who represent old-school, small-c conservatism and internationalism have been pushed out of the party. Who in the Republican Party still listens to Brent Scowcroft?
Wilkerson says the likes of Powell and Scowcroft are “very worried about their ability to restore moderation and sobriety to the party’s foreign and domestic policies.” In 2012 Obama is running as Bush 41 and Romney as Bush 43. Romney would like to make the 2012 election a replay of 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. Romney has attacked Obama’s “breathtaking weakness” and called him “USAia’s most feckless president since Carter.” Yet so far, Romney hasn’t been able to make this argument stick. Obama has been more hawkish than many would like to admit. Obama has a seventeen-point advantage over Romney on foreign affairs and a seven-point advantage on terrorism. The public is also more supportive of Obama’s overall foreign policy worldview. A Pew poll last year found that USAians prefer peace through diplomacy over peace through military strength by 58% to 31%. A similar percentage believes the US should compromise in order to work with allies rather than go it alone. Some top Republicans are worried about Romney’s belligerent statements. Peggy Noonan wrote in the WSJ after the primaries unofficially ended:
In foreign affairs the Republican candidates staked out dangerous ground. They are allowing the GOP to be painted as the war party. They are ceding all non-war ground to the president, who can come forward as the sober, constrained, non-bellicose contender. Do they want that? Are they under the impression USAia is hungry for another war? Really? After the past 11 years?
Recent surveys of swing voters in Ohio and Florida (pdf) confirm her fears. They report:
Republicans strike many of these swing voters as too extreme, too aggressive, too quick to take dangerous actions without all the facts, and too quick on the trigger.
Romney has already committed a string of foreign policy gaffes on the campaign trail. He was chided by House Speaker John Boehner for criticizing Obama while the president was abroad and widely panned for calling Russia “our #1 geopolitical foe” and demanding that Obama release the transcripts of his conversations with foreign leaders. Peter Feaver, an adviser to Bush at the National Security Council, urged Romney to “walk back from reckless campaign promises.” Yet Romney continues to get the benefit of the doubt from leading pundits. A NYT news article recently praised his “impressive bench of foreign policy advisers,” and NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof called them “credible, respected figures.” Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center similarly discounted Romney’s hawkish positions, saying:
He’s articulating policies he wouldn’t follow. Barring an extraordinary event like 9/11, Romney will be much more moderate, much less reckless than Bush 43.
How can we be so sure? After the Bush administration, it’s best not to take anything for granted. Yes, Romney might not yet be a reliable neoconservative. The neocons, after all, have firm beliefs about the necessity of military interventionism, which they’re willing to defend even when unpopular. Romney, on the other hand, simply opposes whatever policy Obama pursues. Neoconservatism, for him, is an ideology of convenience. Steve Clemons said:
I don’t think he has any North Star on foreign policy right now, other than whatever Obama is for, he’s on the other side of it.
That said, Romney’s malleability is an advantage for his neocon advisers, giving them an opportunity to shape his worldview, as they did with Bush after 9/11. Four years after Bush left office in disgrace, Romney is their best shot to get back in power. If that happens, they’re likely to pursue the same aggressive policies they advocated under Bush. Clemons says:
I don’t think there’s been a deep rethink. I don’t think the neoconservatives feel chastened at all. As a movement, the true neoconservatives never, ever give up. They will be back.