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Romney’s Divided Foreign Policy Brain Trust

By on 7.29.11 | 6:08PM

Mitt Romney seemed to equivocate a bit on the Iraq surge in 2007, and seemed to be equivocal on Afghanistan in recent debates. What's that about? In a feature for The New Republic surveying the Republican field, Eli Lake gives some insight:

[Romney's] camp in 2007 was divided. One of Romney's top foreign policy advisers, Mitchell Reiss -- a longtime American diplomat who served as the head of policy planning at the State Department in the second half of [Colin] Powell's tenure -- was a surge skeptic. But Dan Senor -- an unofficial member of Romney's inner circle who had served as a senior adviser and spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq -- was a surge supporter, according to sources familiar with the 2008 Romney campaign. In the end, the surge forces won, and Romney never publicly questioned the policy. And, beyond the surge, Romney seemed content to take pages from Bush's playbook on transforming the Muslim world. The neocons, after all, were the establishment -- and Romney was the establishment candidate.

But, sometimes, it was possible to catch a public glimpse from Romney of what sounded like hesitation about the neoconservative worldview. At a debate in September 2007, Romney was asked about Iraq. He gave a rather measured answer in which he said that the surge was "apparently working" -- two words that quickly drew a response from McCain. "Governor, the surge is working," McCain admonished. "The surge is working, sir. It is working." "That's just what I said," Romney replied. But McCain would have none of it. "No, not apparently," McCain continued. "It's working."

Four years later, Romney once again appears ambivalent -- this time about Afghanistan. Reiss and Senor, I was told, are again two of the people who have his ear -- and again they are split. Reiss tends to emphasize the problems with the local Afghan government, while Senor tends to emphasize that we have to stay until the government has the capacity to defend itself.

Privately, the candidate himself is in the middle.

The Bush administration was as divided as Romney's advisors (of course -- they're former Bush advisors), and as he took office it was far from obvious what direction American foreign policy would take during the Bush years. Bush's governing worldview was forged in the internal arguments immediately following 9/11; his anti-nation-building campaign rhetoric became moot. I suspect that a President Romney's actual foreign policy would likewise be forged by events, and while it's not necessarily a bad thing that he'd likely hear multiple viewpoints, it does imply that supporting him doesn't mean endorsing a particular strategic framework so much as trusting his judgment to sort out conflicting advice.

There's a lot more to Eli's piece, which also looks at Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Perry (with a little about Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich as well), so do read the whole thing. See also Alana Goodman's gloss on the divisions among the candidates regarding how serious a threat sharia law presents to America.

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