A surprising number of conservative foreign policy realists are threatening to vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson as a safer foreign policy president than Gov. Mitt Romney. What are the facts?
The fear is that Maureen Dowd might be right for a change when she recently charged:“After 9/11,the neocons captured one Republican president who was naïve about the world. Now,amid contagious Arab rage sparked on the 11th anniversary of 9/11,they have captured another would-be Republican president and vice president,both jejeune about the world.”
These worried conservatives became more concerned when neoconservative American Enterprise Institute foreign policy vice president Danielle Pletka endorsed Romney’s widely-promoted foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute as a “far cry from his previous perorations” and “a serious speech,” at bottom perhaps “even more than enough” to satisfy those of an interventionist neoconservative persuasion.
It is clear neoconservatives have high hopes for a Romney Commander-in-Chief. Neo high priest Bill Kristol was an early supporter and predicted his election on the basis of the foreign policy debate performance. Former Iraq coalition spokesman and leading neoconservative writer Dan Senior is a top official of Romney’s foreign policy team. Dowd calls him the “neocon puppet master” most responsible for the aggressive foreign policy stance of the Romney campaign. While he is a major voice for the campaign,the adverse reaction to Romney’s Jerusalem and British ventures under Senior’s direction have taken some of the luster off his influence.
To assess the degree Gov. Romney has or has not imbibed of the neocon cool-aid,it is necessary to look at precisely what he has said on foreign policy. No question the VMI speech was his most well-considered,and its rhetoric was hot. But I agree with author and columnist Fareed Zakaria that the substance of the VMI speech was “surprisingly moderate. It signaled no major change of policy. Romney affirmed the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan;he did not propose sending troops back into Iraq and did not advocate military strikes on Iran. He pledged to work toward a two state solution in the Middle East. He even left out the belligerence toward China that had been a staple of his speeches in recent months.”
Syria was the only area where he was more aggressive at VMI. Yet,Zakaria is correct that even here,Romney’s was a “carefully worded,passive construction” in which he did not say he would arm the Syrian opposition but merely that he would “ensure they obtain the arms they need.” But the “they” was only “those members of the opposition who share our values.” That indeed would be a very select group. In his foreign policy TV debate with President Obama,Romney ruled out use of either U.S. military force or enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria.
Even on the matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,Romney has made some careful comments. While he was rather conventional in the VMI speech and the debate supporting a two state solution and a secure Israel,at an earlier private May 17th fundraiser in Boca Raton,he was more forthcoming. He responded to a question on the “Palestinian problem” that “the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.” While counting Israel as an ally,“There is not much that the United States can do,so you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability,but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem.” He then compared that conflict to the one between China and Taiwan,arguing that “we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it,and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately,somehow,something will happen and resolve it.”
Mr. Romney was the less belligerent in the debate on a range of issues. Former defense assistant secretary Bing West expressed it best:“A man from the moon,having read about the past five decades of American history and sent to Earth to listen to the foreign policy debate,would have concluded that the aggressive Mr. Obama was the conservative Republican and the inoffensive Mr. Romney was the moderate Democrat. Only gradually did it become clear that the Romney strategy was not to fight,but to woo. The difference between the genders in the choice of candidates has been striking,and Romney’s performance would lead no reasonable undecided voter,female or male,to worry he was too bellicose.”
Romney listens to many non-neoconservatives who may give him a more balanced view. Former Secretary of State James Baker is reported to have some influence. Realist former assistant secretary of state and Treasury Secretary Robert Zoelick heads the foreign policy section of the Romney transition. Romney advisor John Bolton is more hawkish than these but realist enough to have argued that the U.S. should have stuck with strongman Hosni Mubarak rather than the “democracy” of the Muslim Brotherhood now running Egypt.
It is also relevant that the Romney “moderation” since his nomination that concerns conservatives and libertarians on domestic policy likewise suggests a similar moderation on foreign policy. It is hard to picture Mr. Romney lusting to bring democracy to the world even when hearing him mouth some platitude to that effect. In the debate speaking about the Arab Spring,Romney said “we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam…reject this radical violent extremism.” He even distanced himself from President George W. Bush,saying:“We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan.” He summed that his policy was based on “principals of peace,” echoing Ronald Reagan’s 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter.
Mitt Romney will not be a perfect conservative or libertarian president,but there is no question he will be to the right domestically of Barack Obama who is a believing big government progressive who has been a disaster economically and socially and has no program for a second term except to drift further left,probably surreptitiously through regulations rather than by convincing Congress or the country. If his Oslo speech does not persuade one that the president is a conventional liberal internationalist on foreign affairs,perhaps his action to provide the necessary air support for the Libya intervention,which has zero prospects for a democratic future,would be sufficient to complete the case.
Will Romney be more realistic than Obama on foreign policy? One cannot know for sure. But neocon Pletka was disappointed that Romney “limped in distinguishing himself from Obama on Iran” in the VMI speech and “shied away from tougher talk about the challenge of an increasingly aggressive Peoples’ Republic of China.” Rich Lowry criticized Romney’s debate performance for being too weak on Afghanistan. Their disquiet may be the most prudent guide to those considering throwing away a vote to a third party candidate who cannot possibly win.
Donald Devine,the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line,was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.
Photo Credit:davelawrence8 (Creative Commons)
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