The explanation for Mitt Romney’s Middle East madness is hiding in plain sight. Dan Senor has become Romney’s “lead” advisor on the region, matching one blank slate with another. Senor’s only real foreign policy experience is his 15 months in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as “senior adviser” to Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the occupation government installed by the Bush White House. It’s hard to be senior at the age of 31—which is what the wiry former congressional staffer and Harvard Business School grad was when he moved into his 68-degree cooled office at the gilded Republican Palace in Baghdad in 2003—or even at the age of 41, which is precisely what Senor will be on Election Day this year. Senor, who wore a Bush-Cheney t-shirt at a Thanksgiving road race in Iraq, has been whispering in Mitt’s ear since 2006, when he trekked to Boston to meet the then-unannounced candidate.
Beyond Senor’s stint at what even Republicans brand the catastrophic CPA, he has also written about the Middle East, though never anything beyond bland op-eds, sometimes in defense of Iraq policies. He and his brother-in-law Saul Singer, an Israeli journalist, published a 2009 best seller called Start-up Nation, celebrated by Romney and Senor’s friend Bibi Netanyahu. The public relations firm that promoted it, Marshall, Nappi & Schultz, also handled The War Over Iraq: America’s Mission and Saddam’s Tyranny, which Senor’s mentor Bill Kristol wrote with Lawrence F. Kaplan in 2003 (timed to appear at the same moment as “shock and awe”); as well as books by Islamophobes like David Horowitz and Nonie Darwish, and even Romney’s former Bain partner Ed Conard.
When Senor appeared on Dennis Prager’s right-wing radio show to push his book nine months after President Obama took office, he declared Israel “a more favorable environment for an entrepreneur that wants to start a company than it is in the U.S.,” explaining that “growth in the last few years in the U.S.” wasn’t “real sustainable growth,” but was “driven by easy credit.” Odd statements for a top adviser to any presidential candidate, much less one from the same party that presided over those “few years.”
Senor attributed Israel’s higher entrepreneurial ranking to its economic “culture,” a comparison Romney leapt to apply to the Palestinians in comments during the Senor-arranged July trip to Israel, during which Romney actually looked around the King David Hotel ballroom for Senor as he disparaged the Palestinians’ aptitude for growth. Romney said his cultural comparison—denounced as “racist” by the Palestinian leadership—was “informed” by Senor’s book. The other stumble, just before Romney’s arrival in Israel, was Senor’s bombs-away declaration endorsing a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran; the campaign later indicated that this statement had gotten “a little ahead” of Romney’s intentions.
Indeed, Romney’s candid revelations in the leaked Mother Jones video, dismissing any possibility of a two-state settlement with the Palestinians, are also pure Senor. The advisor launched his political career in 1993 in Israel, when he campaigned for Benny Begin, the son of the former prime minister who ran for Likud Party leader in opposition to the Oslo accord and any prospect of a Palestinian state. (Romney and Senor strike a public pro-two-state pose at times, but endorse conditions that make it non-negotiable.) Senor also rushed to the cameras on CNN and elsewhere to defend Romney’s over-the-top assault on Obama after the Libyan embassy attack, when the campaign statement actually accused Barack Obama of sympathizing with the mob that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
Politico predicts that the saber-rattling Senor could be chief of staff or national security advisor in a Romney administration, presumably channeling Kristol and Netanyahu with each inspired breath. Romney will certainly never hear from Senor what Noam Neusner, the lead Middle East advisor to the 2008 Romney campaign and former Bush liaison to the Jewish community, wrote in the Forward that August, after Romney had dropped out. “The Iranian regime was always regarded as a problem to be solved during the two terms,” wrote Neusner, who called himself a “Bushie” in the piece. “We vowed not to kick the can down the road, to delay action until the next president came into office. Yet here we are. The mullahs are still very much in power. The weapons programs are intact.” Calling Bush’s Iran policy “meandering,” Neusner summarized it as “either we do nothing or we go to war,” anticipating the critique Romney, Senor, and Netanyahu have thrown at Obama, despite the president’s implementation of sanctions Bush never attempted.
If Romney wants a review of Senor’s signature foreign policy credential, he could ask Dov Zakheim, who is, like Senor, on both Romney’s Jewish support committee and his foreign policy council. Having served as the Defense Department’s chief financial officer in the Bush era, Zakheim wrote in Foreign Policy last year that “many analysts (including myself) consider” Paul Bremer’s “controversial decisions to disband the Iraqi army and to maximize the extent of the de-Baathification” major blunders “that led to the sectarian violence that plagued the country for the ensuing four years.” Zakheim called the CPA “the late and unlamented” occupation government. Another recent Foreign Policy blog post added two other Bremer blights—“some question-able financial dealings involving hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi money, and the scandal over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib,” which an Iraqi leader claims he warned an indifferent Bremer about well before it exploded. Sounds like a hell of a stepping stone.
Yet Senor is hardly the only Romney insider to emerge from this partisan talent pool. Roman Martinez, who co-authored an op-ed with Senor and is thanked in Start-up Nation for reviewing the manuscript, is on Romney’s justice advisory committee. Meghan O’Sullivan, a very close friend of Senor’s in the Baghdad days, co-chairs Romney’s committee on the Middle East. O’Sullivan and Martinez were Bremer’s top governance and political counsels, and drafted Iraq’s interim constitution. Williamson Evers, the CPA’s senior education adviser, is on Romney’s Education Policy Advisory Committee, just as he was for Bush in 2000 before he was dispatched to Iraq. John Agresto, named by the campaign to Reaganites for Romney, was the CPA Senior Adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education. Actually, when President Reagan nominated Agresto for National Archivist in the ’80s, Republican senators and historical groups beat back the nomination—branding Agresto, like so many others later dispatched by the Bush White House to the CPA, a “mediocre political appointee.”
Superspy Cofer Black, a key national security advisor to Romney, was counterterrorism coordinator for the State Department during the CPA era, leaving in 2005 to become vice chair of Blackwater, the security firm that had guarded Bremer, Senor, and the Palace. When four Blackwater soldiers were killed at Fallujah in March 2004, Senor expressed his “utmost confidence” in the company that came to symbolize American brutality in Iraq. Black was simultaneously appearing at Blackwater’s “World SWAT Conference” in North Carolina, where one of the other speakers was the CEO of the Killology Research Group. Black, who was still running Blackwater when he advised Romney during the 2007–08 campaign, issued fraudulent terrorism reports in the lead-up to the 2004 election, which contended that terrorist incidents around the world were plummeting (partly by refusing to characterize insurgent attacks in Iraq as terrorist).
Peter Wehner, the Romney speechwriter whose convention draft mentioning Afghanistan was dumped, worked in Karl Rove’s Office of Strategic Initiatives before and after the CPA era. He was a Bush intellectual bulwark on foreign policy as well, previewed the Start-up Nation manuscript, co-authored an op-ed with Senor, and accused Obama last year of “losing the war in Iraq,” which he called “a crimson stain” on his presidency. Romney thanked only Senor and Wehner in his 2010 book, No Apologies, for sharpening “my appreciation of the dangers presented” by the Obama “shift in our foreign policy.” After Paul Ryan joined the ticket, Romney assigned the pair to do the same for him.
In the alternate universe of some GOP elites, the CPA, which Iraqis dubbed Can’t Provide Anything, remains a nation-building model, a deep well of neocon wisdom.
Senor, says one reporter who watched him in Iraq, “traded up on every bad institution,” moving from Iraq to paid Fox analyst to his own New York private equity firm (which is represented by the Michigan law firm that includes Mitt’s brother Scott), and on now to the pinnacle of presidential campaign power. Senor also, says the reporter, “left behind a great deal of damage, yet learned nothing from Iraq.” Gordon Robison, who oversaw the news department at a post-Saddam state television network set up by the U.S. and later worked for Fox in Iraq, told the Spectator that Senor’s Stratcomm unit was “so obsessed with managing the story in the American media, they had completely given up on the Arab media and the Iraqi media,” adding that Senor himself “didn’t have much interaction” with his Iraqi journalists.
George Packer wrote in his 2005 book, The Assassin’s Gate, that Senor “stood up at daily press conferences” and issued statements “that were usually at odds with the facts, on occasion flatly untrue, and often in direct contradiction to statements made a day or a week earlier—all the while insisting that American policy remained firm and the violence was sporadic, minor and under control.” In Baghdad, his words “took on the tone of farce, and the audience that mattered most—the Iraqis—wasn’t fooled.” Packer recounts Bremer’s visit with stuffed animals to a maternity hospital outside Baghdad, when he came upon “a withered and skeletal” baby and a 3-year-old with its head “lolling back against its mother’s body, mouth open,” and Bremer asked photographers to stop taking pictures. When Packer started talking to doctors, who told him that the electricity hadn’t been on for a week and was only supplied “because we were here,” a Senor aide who had worked for Bush in the South Carolina primary pushed the conversation back on message. “Are you happy with Saddam gone?” he asked.
The press releases that came out of Senor’s office were headlined “Beautification Plan for Baghdad Ready to Begin” (issued twice on March 27 and May 3, 2004), “Hated Heads of Former Dictator Removed From CPA Headquarters,” and “Reality Is Nothing Like What You See on TV.” The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, whose Imperial Life was a National Book Award finalist, wrote that Senor “never conceded a mistake, and his efforts to spin failures into successes sometimes reached the point of absurdity.” Asked about “interminable gas lines,” he saw it as “good news,” claiming that more Iraqis were driving because the CPA had allowed the import of new cars. When Senor finally set up a Bremer interview for the Iraqi Media Network Robison supervised, he asked the questions himself, one “softball” after another, and complained when the network didn’t air all of it.
Senor, contends Chandrasekaran, became “the most visible CPA official after Bremer,” and Packer quoted an Iraqi close to the CPA as saying: “[T]he less one knew about Iraq, the more influence one had.” When Senor and Bremer were finally helicoptered out together in June 2004—two days ahead of the scheduled transition of power to dodge a feared attack—Senor immediately picked up where he left off, assuming the role of on-camera surrogate for the Bush re-elect, debuting the pit-bull style he continues for Mitt Romney.
We watch him now, a regular on Morning Joe, treated as if he is a person of substance, a potential president’s wise man. Yet all there is on his resume that qualifies him as “a Middle East expert” is this dark season of deception. Even as he rails about Iran, he is never questioned about the Iraqi regime he and Bremer helped put in place, an instant Iranian ally that is now accused of aiding Syria’s regime. Appearing on Chuck Todd’s MSNBC show on the first anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death this May, and asked about the Obama’s administration’s recent revelations of its drone use protocols, Senor declared that he was “uneasy” with “an incomplete release of information,” which he claimed “shapes a political narrative.” He was not smiling. As neutral as Nexis is, as accessible as Senor’s history is, we have become a country of blank slates, with every day a new day and every favored face fresh.
Wayne Barrett was an investigative reporter at The Village Voice for nearly four decades and has written several books, including Rudy! An Investigative Biography of Rudy Giuliani. Research assistance was provided by Jacob Anderson, Nadia Prupis, Stephanie Rogan, and Catherine Thompson.