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Reading Tea Leaves

By Andrew J. Polsky


With Mitt Romney’s trip abroad to visit Israel, Poland, and Great Britain, the focus of the 2012 presidential campaign shifts briefly to foreign policy. The Romney people hope to project the image of their candidate as a credible head of state and commander-in-chief, as well as to score some political points at home. The visit to Israel, a nation President Obama hasn’t visited during his first term, seems designed to stir doubts about the incumbent among American Jews, long one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs. This is all pretty standard fare for presidential candidates. We are unlikely to learn much during the trip about what kind of foreign policies Romney would pursue if elected.

Indeed, his campaign seems determined to steer the public conversation away from international questions, preferring to contest the election on the sluggish American economic recovery. His surrogates have resisted calls that he clarify his Afghanistan policy, on the curious grounds that “real Americans” don’t care about it. In a July 24th speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Romney condemns the president and his administration for national security leaks that serve administration political purposes. (Under a Romney administration, one presumes, leaks will cease and horses will learn to fly.) And the Republican candidate also warns against the looming defense expenditure reductions that would be required under sequestration, another stance that the GOP hopes will have some political traction in November. None of this adds up to anything like a coherent foreign policy stance.

The avoidance of foreign policy encourages campaign observers to try to tease out Romney’s foreign policy views based on fragments of evidence. One recent line of speculation focuses on the people around the candidate, his foreign policy advisers. This approach has given rise to alarmist concerns that a Romney victory would usher in the Second Coming of the Bush 43 neoconservatives who gave us the mishandled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus in a piece in The Nation, Ari Berman concludes that Romney’s policy statements during the primaries and his cast of advisers “suggest a return to the hawkish, unilateral interventionism of the George W. Bush administration should he win the White House in November.” Similarly, Colin Powell cautions about the foreign policy people around the GOP candidate, “I don’t know who all of his advisers are, but I’ve seen some of the names and some of them are quite far to the right. And sometimes they might be in a position to make judgments or recommendations to the candidate that should get a second thought.”

Not so fast. Others who scan the names of the Romney foreign policy team see not Bush 43 resurgent but the more sober realism of Bush 41. They maintain that longtime Republican administration stalwarts such as Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George Shultz have the candidate’s ear; another adviser is John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. According to some “insiders” (itself an ambiguous term), the realists, though hawkish, offset the influence of extreme neocons such as John Bolton.

That Romney would draw on a spectrum of Republican foreign policy hands makes sense, of course. Were he to tilt strongly in one direction, he would be committing himself sooner than he needs, and the resulting political fall-out would damage his campaign with some segment of the electorate.

More fundamentally, we should ask whether we can tell much about a president’s foreign policy from the cast of characters he installs around him. In part, they are intended to send signals about the new administration. George W. Bush, who appreciated his lack of foreign policy experience, sought to offset this weakness by picking seasoned advisers such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell. The public, along with the international community, could take comfort from the presence of these “grown-ups”; the neoconservative ideologues occupied second-tier positions in his administration, removed from the seat of power. Rumsfeld seemed to be on the same page as Bush, too, in their shared distaste for nation building. Before 9/11, few would have predicted that the president and his team (Powell and Rumsfeld both partly excepted) would have signed on for the most ambitious effort to remake a society that the United States has attempted since the end of the Second World War.

The more serious question about Mitt Romney as a possible president, then, is how much space he would have to reshape American foreign policy. He faces serious budget constraints that will mock his call to increase defense spending, not to mention a lack of public support for higher outlays. Although he has questioned the pace of American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, here, too, he is out of step with public opinion. On a series of issues, ranging from USA-China relations to Iran sanctions to North Korea, it is difficult to see that a “hard line” approach would differ significantly from what the Obama administration and its predecessors have done. Notwithstanding the worries in some quarters that a Romney victory would mean a return to the “Bush-Cheney doctrine” that “eagerly embraces military force without fully considering the consequences,” that time has passed. No set of advisers can bring it back in 2013.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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AURORA, CO – JUNE 20: Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney speaks with the media after visiting the Brewery Bar IV on June 20, 2011 in Aurora, Colorado. Romney met with a group of small business owners at the Colorado bar on a campaign stop before attending an evening fundraiser. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) Source: Photo by EdStock2, iStockphoto.

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