Towards an enigmatic policy

When reporters are writing stories and don’t yet have a necessary piece of information, they sometimes write “TK,” as in “to come.”

By David Ignatius (Perspective)

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Published: Mon 27 Aug 2012, 8:36 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:30 PM

I feel that way about Mitt Romney’s foreign policy. Other than his support for Israel and rhetorical shots at Russia and China, it’s a mystery what Romney thinks about major international issues and where he would take the country.

Is Romney a neoconservative who has an idealistic vision of America transforming the world through military power and advocacy of democracy? You get that impression from some of Romney’s speeches and position papers, and from the role of such neocons as Dan Senor among his close advisers.

Or is Romney a closet realist who takes a more pragmatic view than some of his speeches might imply? Will he, as president, prove to be a Massachusetts moderate, closer to the traditional Republican line on foreign policy? Many conservatives are suspicious of Romney for precisely this reason—believing that Romney’s embrace of right-wing positions is simple political opportunism.

One test is to speculate who might serve as Romney’s secretary of state. Would it be a mainstream Republican foreign-policy hand, someone like Steve Hadley or Bob Zoellick, who served as national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, respectively, in the George W. Bush administration? Or would his choice be someone more hawkish, such as former UN ambassador John Bolton? For now, it’s anyone’s guess.

The fuzziness of Romney foreign policy was painfully evident in the fracas following the announcement that uber-realist Zoellick would head his foreign-policy transition team. That produced a “firestorm” of protest from conservatives, according to Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, who described Zoellick as “anathema” to hawks. The Romney campaign promptly seemed to retreat, with sources insisting that Zoellick wouldn’t play any prominent role in a Romney administration.

The case that Romney (and the Republican Party, in general) has been captured by the neocons is made by Robert Merry, editor of The National Interest, a magazine that is a voice for the “realist” camp. Merry argued in his 2005 book “Sands of Empire” that modern Republican foreign-policy thinking has had three wings: the pragmatists, represented by such figures as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker; the nationalists, embodied by hawks such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld; and the neoconservatives, whose prominent voices included Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams and Eliot Cohen.

What happened after September 11, 2001, Merry explained in an interview, was that the nationalists and the neocons joined forces, creating a foreign policy that was at once idealistic and militaristic, which led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This ascendancy of what Merry calls the “militant Wilsonians” seemed to have been reversed during Bush’s second term, but with Romney they seem to be back, stronger than ever. “No doctrine that counters the neocons had any sinews in the GOP, so it became a default position,” contends Merry.

A contrary view comes from one prominent neocon who is sympathetic to Romney but thinks his foreign policy has been little more than “opposition research,” so far. “Romney has done nothing to present a coherent foreign policy,” this supporter told me, with the campaign preferring “drive-by shooting of Obama,” based on a caricatured image of the president as a left-wing, anti-war liberal that hasn’t been accurate since 2008. Other than support for Israel, Romney’s GOP is “increasingly insular and nationalistic,” he worries.

The Obama White House suspects that Romney can’t really mean what he says, and that he would have to change policies immediately if elected: His pledge to declare China a foreign-currency manipulator on his first day in office, for example, would break with decades of GOP policy and might launch a trade war. His criticism of Obama’s alleged weakness on Iran, Syria and Afghanistan ignores the reality that for a war-weary country, keeping America out of another conflict is politically popular.

One prominent Republican argues that whatever defects Romney may have as a foreign-policy candidate, he would behave differently as president. “Bush changed, Obama changed, Romney will change,” he says. That’s the essence of foreign-policy realism, this belief that the parameters that shape strategy—the set of allies, enemies, problems and tools—don’t vary much from administration to administration. And neither does policy.

That’s a question to ponder as you watch Romney this week in Tampa: Does he offer a coherent view of America and the world, and does he really mean what he says?

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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