Romney’s extreme foreign policy makeover

By David Rohde
October 11, 2012

It began two weeks ago with a little-noticed speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, where Mitt Romney distanced himself from Tea Party Republicans and defended the legitimacy of American foreign aid programs. And it continued in a speech on Monday at the Virginia Military Institute, where Romney – after months of hailing only Israel – called Turkey and pro-democracy Arab Spring demonstrators American allies as well.

“As the joy born from the downfall of dictators has given way to the painstaking work of building capable security forces, and growing economies, and developing democratic institutions,” Romney said, “the President has failed to offer the tangible support that our partners want and need.”

Just as in domestic policy, Mitt Romney is softening his rhetoric in foreign affairs. Moving away from more strident stances on supporting Israel, increasing U.S. defense spending and fearing the Arab Spring, he is adopting a more measured tone. The question, of course, is whether voters will embrace the new Romney or see him as an opportunistic chameleon.

Romney’s campaign won’t acknowledge any official shift, but recent press reports have noted the rising prominence of Richard Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser and veteran diplomat viewed as a relative moderate in Republican foreign policy circles. Williamson led a call with reporters before Romney’s speech on Monday and appears to have had a hand in his recent change of tone. Rhetorically at least, the role of neo-conservative advisers – such as former George W. Bush administration officials Liz Cheney and Dan Senor – seems to be waning.

In an hour-long phone interview on Wednesday, Williamson denied any shift – or division – within the Romney campaign. But he presented a far more nuanced version of Romney’s approach to the Middle East than displayed on Romney’s trip to Israel in July. The Israel trip was organized by Senor, the neo-conservative former Bush administration official.

In a wide-ranging critique of Obama administration policy, Williamson laid out an approach that went beyond backing Israel. As Romney did in his speech on Monday, Williamson said a Romney administration would work with its allies to ensure that Syria’s rebels receive missiles that will allow them to shoot down government attack jets and helicopters. And he said a Romney White House would do more to back post-Arab Spring countries as they try to democratize.

In a critique that sounded more as if it were coming from the left than the right, Williamson accused the Obama administration of relying too heavily on drone strikes in counterterrorism operations. He said a Romney administration would do more to address the political, economic and social conditions that foster extremism.

“Drone killings, targeted killings, is not a foreign policy,” he said. “It’s not even a strategy to deal with Islamic extremism and terrorism.”

An opinion piece that Romney published in the Wall Street Journal last Sunday made a similar argument. The Republican nominee accused Obama of failing to use “the full spectrum of our softer power” to help “those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression.” And in his speech on Monday, Romney criticized Obama for not doing more to aid the economies of post-Arab Spring countries.

“The dignity of work,” Romney said, “and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism.”

That rhetoric is a far cry from the language Romney used in a speech in Jerusalem in July. At the time, he called the Middle East a region of “rising tumult and chaos” and warned darkly of the election of an “Islamist president” in Egypt. In last week’s Wall Street Journal piece, the new Romney called the Arab Spring “an opportunity to help move millions of people from oppression to freedom.”

Colin Kahl, a senior foreign policy adviser in the Obama campaign, scoffed at Romney’s changes. He said the Republican nominee was frantically trying to soften his image.

“The Romney campaign is in a desperate final few weeks of trying to reinvent themselves,” he said. “I think more in tone than in substance, you saw a slight shift.”

Kahl has a point. Romney’s recent speeches have been an odd combination of sophistication and pablum. In one passage, he rightly calls for working with Turkey and backing moderate Muslims in the Middle East. In the next, he calls for showing “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel. Romney correctly highlights the central role that economic growth can play in countering extremism, but then simplistically states that the answer to the region’s complex problems is reducing trade barriers.

Don’t expect that to change. In the interview, Williamson flatly denied that there were any contradictions in Romney’s stances. Instead, he vowed that Romney would continue to aggressively attack Obama on the subject through a pivotal final Oct. 22 presidential debate on foreign affairs.

“If he thinks he’s going to be fine,” Williamson said, referring to Obama, “he’s going to have another bad day.”

So far, the Obama campaign has struggled to derail or discredit Romney’s new shift to moderate ground. As in domestic policy, Romney stays vague on details and offers contradictory rhetorical tidbits that appeal to divergent voters. Hailing Israel pleases the Christian right. Supporting Turkey charms Republican internationalists.

What Romney actually believes is impossible to know. The former Massachusetts governor may not be a better president than Obama, but in the last two weeks he has been a better politician.

PHOTO: Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney delivers his foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, October 8, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

8 comments

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I like a lot of what this version of Romney has to say about foreign policy. I also find the slightly right of center moderate domestic policy, including tax reform (revenue neutral isn’t a tax cut, it just isn’t) appealing. Then I allow my brain to recall more than two weeks of news cycles and it explodes trying to reconcile the shift.

If this really is the candidate in the race then it’s the guy I want in office. If he has the balls to come out and admit that the crap he spewed in primary season was kabuki theater, designed to seal the nomination and pacify the talk radio kool-aid addicts, then do an effective job convincing me that this is the real Romney, I would actually change my vote. Until he addresses the cognitive dissonance in his own campaign, I can’t give him the nod.

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive

Somehow people think that Nov. 3rd will come around and they’ll have something other than a Republicrat in office. It’s a lateral pass of the ball but make no mistake, authority is still charging down the field. Elections just give us someone new to blame for the next 4 years as our rights and liberties get fewer and fewer and the worlds hatred of us gets stronger. Foreign policy isn’t going to change.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

“pro-democracy Arab Spring demonstrators American allies as well.” I was under the impression that these people want freedom from dictators and more powerful nations that back said dictators, Egypt comes to mind. They may want Democracy but does not necessarily make them our allies. This simplistic notion that people who want Democracy must love America is rather ridiculous.

“Romney criticized Obama for not doing more to aid the economies of post-Arab Spring countries.” How many billions have we spent on infrastructure in Afghanistan? Now were going to prop up these economies, not cut any social services and lower taxes? What’s Mitt going to do, start selling States to China?

Posted by SchWI | Report as abusive

Is there ANY issue this guy WON’T flip-flop on? How can anyone take him seriously? Independants are supposed to be the ‘wise, non-partisan’ ones who take a wait-and-see attitude… mularkey! They are people so uninvolved or uninterested in politics as to be persuaded (or dissuaded) by stump-style drivel. Team Obama has stuck to their guns and maintained their message of what they stand for, right or wrong. Team Romney? They’ve had every position and it’s opposite and try to say both are right. My God! You want them to have the nuclear codes and a base with an itchy trigger finger?

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Interestingly, Hillary Clinton came up with similar ideas just after Romney’s speech!
http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/1 2/us-usa-mideast-idUSBRE89B19Z20121012
— Quite a coincidence, no?
Both sides appear to be moving very quickly, as they try to steal each other’s political clothes, hog the center ground and win the election. Just look at Hillary Clinton’s face, in the picture on this other Reuters article!

@spall78: Look at Romney’s record in office, and the political traditions of George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father). I do believe we are now starting to see the real Mitt Romney, who has been de-emphasizing the moderate aspects of his approach in order to win over Republican primary voters (he did them all a favor by doing this — can you imagine those other candidates running against Obama?) I personally think Romney could be a very successful president. But that’s for Americans to decide, and it remains to be seen…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

…For a while, I’ve been wondering why the entire American military machine appeared from the perspective of my British eyes to have been castrated. The scandals have not stopped (with soldiers on both sides still being accused of human abuses in Afghanistan — though the Taliban are far worse than we are, by all credible accounts, and we have not yet seen another incident on the scale of Abu Ghraib, perhaps partly thanks to Obama’s toned-down non-xenophobic rhetoric/propaganda as compared with GWB). But aside from the drone program in the Pakistani tribal areas and the raid on bin Laden’s hide-out, the effectuality and intelligent direction appears to have been mostly “on hold” over the last four years (think for example, how Benghazi would not exist today if Obama had won over Sarkozy to his passive diplomatic approach).

Where is the root of the problem?

Is it in the ghosts of the Iraq War? Is it that the Democratic administration wants to differentiate themselves politically from their Republican predecessors, and from Democratic president LBJ who we now know (with the recent declassification of relevant documents) started or massively escalated the Vietnam War on false pretences? Is it that the current administration doesn’t want to crimp their ability to point the fingers of scorn at other “warmongering” nations?

Personally I think that Obama’s “Nobel Peace Prize” has a lot to do with it (a prize he was awarded prior to taking office, and before he had actually DONE anything!)
Sorry to insult that venerable organization, the Nobel Prize Committee; but this prize award was a total farce! It was obviously politically motivated. The object in their minds was clearly to make Obama more wary of losing his Nobel Peace Prize, so more wary of being seen to support military action or to be too easily persuaded to abuse American military superiority etc. This tactic appears to have worked, only too well.

It’s nice that someone other than the Americans was taking the lead for once (Sarkozy did a wonderful job preventing Benghazi from being bombed, raped and pillaged). It’s wonderful that under the new régime, Libya was liberated (hopefully for all its citizens, Gaddafi supporters included) without putting American boots on the ground and thereby arousing anti-American feelings. But it’s a shame Obama appeared so reticent to get Americans involved, so wary to consult Congress as required by the US Constitution (and thereby ADMIT that he was starting a military conflict), and apparently so wary to be stripped of his “Nobel Peace Prize”.

It’s a great shame we’ve all been letting Syrian civilians get slaughtered with artillery and air power that was sold to the Syrians for the purposes of defending themselves internationally (originally from Saddam and his army). It’s a great shame that Syria is becoming a source of new extremism, because of the brutal conditions that the Assads have been allowed to put in place there…

We may not be able to fight their battles for them (and perhaps, we should allow them their own victory). But it’s reassuring that both major American parties (one of them, belatedly) are now starting to form the opinion that if there’s going to be a civil war in Syria, we should do EVERYTHING in our power to protect civilians.

We surely should be men of peace — which requires a balanced approach. If Romney saves 100 civilians, either by winning the election and rebalancing American diplomatic/military policy, or otherwise, by prodding the Democrats into doing this; then his change of rhetorical emphasis will all be forgiven, in my books…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

It is astonishing to see a candidate flip-flopping right up to the election, but what else could we expect from Romney? In his case, that is consistency. Don’t we remember that in the early stages of the winnowing of hopefuls it was often mentioned that Romney was running against himself? Of course, advisor Williamson is trying to slide some of Romney’s points into a better alignment with polling results, so that contributes to the gymnastics.

Posted by bcrawf | Report as abusive

I fail to see how Romney plans to do anything in which he has been recently talking about. How does he plan on dealing with our major trade partner and supposed ally Russia, who supports the current regime in Syria, yet hand missiles to Syrian rebels? It would practically be a proxy war between us and Moscow as the the US armed rebels fight the Russian armed Assad. How does he plan on reconciling that? Label Russia as our enemy, just as he would China a currency manipulator?

How can he gut government as he proposes to do, and still use “the full spectrum of our soft power” of which a main component is our diplomat corps, a non discretionary, non defense expenditure cut which would presumably be included in his 20% of GDP tie in?

He is the perfect candidate. Not only is he going to somehow add 12 million new jobs to our economy with his “brilliant plan” (http://www.epi.org/publication/ib343-ob ama-romney-job-growth/), but he’s going to gut government somewhere on the order of 3% as it currently stands, cut all of our taxes 20%, AND have enough money left over to sink into building the economies of an entire subcontinent. I’ve heard of offering the moon, but this sounds like Romney is offering me the entire Solar System.

Posted by ocepheus | Report as abusive