The last time Mitt Romney ran for president, his foreign policy positions seemed cautious and contrived, in particular when compared to John McCain’s visceral support of intervention, hegemony, and big military budgets.
Speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations conference in 2008, McCain advisor Max Boot ridiculed Romney’s ambivalence on Iraq. “Mitt Romney can claim that he was kind of for the surge all along,” Boot said, “but he clearly was not out in front in the way John McCain was, and didn’t risk his political neck in the way that McCain did.”
There is no more “kind of” in Romney’s foreign policy.
The Republican nominee has evolved into a neocon — spoiling for a fight with Russia, eager to confront China, ready for prolonged war in Afghanistan, and committed to an extended occupation of Iraq. How did Romney get here?
He brought together foreign policy advisors from across the spectrum, at least from across the Republican spectrum. Then he gave himself over to one faction.
“Romney has put together a team of rivals,” says Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation. “Robert Zoellick, Dov Zacheim and his son Roger [Zacheim], and others are advising him on foreign policy. They are realists who will not go chasing demons, wade into a reckless collision with Iran, or undermine relations with Russia and China.”
That is half the team. And the other half?
“What concerns me,” Clemons says, “is what seems to be the temporary rise of the John Bolton wing.” That wing consists of many of the advisors who shaped George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s interventionist foreign policy.”
It is hard to know where to begin in describing Bolton’s foreign policy. Clemons uses the terms “pugnacious” and “bellicose.” Yet Bolton, a lawyer and ambassador in several Republican administrations, is in a class of his own.
How is that class defined? Consider a few examples.
While it is an unspoken rule of Middle Eastern diplomacy that Israel’s nuclear capabilities are never acknowledged in public, Bolton has openly urged Israel to use its nuclear arsenal to attack Iran. “We are at a very unhappy point,” Bolton said in a 2009 speech, “a very unhappy point, where unless Israel is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Iran’s program, Iran will have nuclear weapons in the very near future.”
Bolton has described his role in rescinding the 1972 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, while he served as deputy secretary of state for Colin Powell, as the “happiest moment in my professional life.” He advocated de-funding the United Nations, before George W. Bush used a recess appointment to circumvent Democratic senators and make Bolton U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
As undersecretary of state, Bolton traveled to Israel two months before the invasion of Iraq and returned to say that after regime change in Iraq was wrapped up, the United States would have to deal with “threats from Syria, Iran, North Korea.”
In the 1990s, Bolton drafted some of the policy positions for Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the now-defunct think tank that shaped the arguments to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2009, William Kristol, one of PNAC’s founders, recreated the organization under a new brand. Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative is an advocacy group dedicated to keeping alive the foreign policy of George W. Bush while Barack Obama is president.
Its board of directors includes Kristol, Robert Kagan, Eric Edelman, and Dan Senor. Kristol is advising from outside; Kagan, Edelman, and Senor are three of the Boltonistas on Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team.
Kagan was one of the intellectual authors of the invasion of Iraq and remained dedicated to the project long after his colleagues abandoned ship.
Midway into the 10-year enterprise, when war architects Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman were walking away from the invasion and occupation they had designed, Kagan was holding out for an escalation of troops and a military solution.
Edelman was a policy advisor to Dick Cheney, who, like Kagan, was invested in war in Iraq long after the U.S. effort had unraveled. In 2007, Edelman attacked then-candidate Hillary Clinton for urging the Pentagon to wind down the war. “Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia,” Edelman wrote in a letter to Clinton.
Senor was more apologist than policy intellectual. As spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq when the American occupation began, he spent 18 months trying to convince reporters that the United States was building a modern democracy on the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s despotic state.
“This is literally the time and place that that country descended into chaos, and he was the guy telling the American people that it was going well,” Michael Breen, vice president of the Truman National Security Project, told the Institute for Policy Studies’ Right Web blog. Breen was an Army captain in Iraq while Senor was spinning the American occupation.
Why is Mitt Romney buying advice from the architects of a failed policy? And where will these men lead Romney if he is elected in November?
There are two schools of thought regarding the first question. Candidates sometimes stake out foreign policy positions that they then abandon once in office.
Obama, for example, campaigned against the excesses of George W. Bush, then ramped up many of the questionable practices he inherited from his predecessor, such as indefinite detention without trial and the use of drones in extrajudicial killings of individuals the administration designates as enemies.
Other candidates reveal their hand before they play it. Ronald Reagan described his Central American policy while he was a candidate, then delivered on it. George W. Bush made it evident where he was heading, even if the attacks of September 2001 fast-tracked his program to remake the Middle East.
Romney is so invested in policy positions defined by his neocon advisers that he might not be able to walk away from them after assuming office.
Since delivering his only big foreign policy speech at the Citadel in October 2011, Romney has staked out the following positions:
Russia is our number-one adversary. “[F]or a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is of course a massive nuclear power, Russia is the — the geopolitical foe…”
The U.S. should stay in Afghanistan: “We should not negotiate with the Taliban,” Romney said. “We should defeat the Taliban…. We go anywhere they are and we kill them.”
Iran can be contained. “I will enhance our deterrent against the Iranian regime by ordering the regular presence of two aircraft carrier task forces, one in the Eastern Mediterranean and one in the Persian Gulf region.”
The Army should not be “hollowed out.” After Obama has withdrawn most troops from Iraq, and is drawing down troops in Afghanistan, Romney continues to call for increasing troop strength by 100,000.
The Navy has to be refurbished. “I will reverse the hollowing out of our Navy and announce an initiative to increase the shipbuilding rate from 9 per year to 15.” The defense budget must be increased rather than reduced and never allowed to fall below 4 percent of gross domestic product.
We’ve already been where Romney would take us. In 2000, the Project for the New American Century promised “a new American Century,” which resulted in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping, and indefinite detention in Guantanamo.
While it isn’t likely that a President Romney would have the political space to maneuver the nation into a really big war (except perhaps in Iran), the very same advisors, older and heavier, are back, planning what they call an “American Century.”