Potshots from Left and Right Target Romney’s Foreign Policy Team

BY Margaret Warner  August 23, 2012 at 6:00 PM EDT

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney meets Jim Thone of Bakersfield, Cal., during the VFW convention at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, Nev., on July 24. Photo by Jose Luis Villegas/ Sacramento Bee/ MCT via Getty Images.

When Mitt Romney’s campaign unveiled his team of foreign policy advisers, the political left unloaded.

The Nation magazine dubbed it “Romney’s Neocon War Cabinet,” noting firebreathing former UN ambassador John Bolton, columnist Robert Kagan and former Bush-Cheney official and neoconservative tutor Eliot Cohen. The take from left-leaning blog Daily Kos: “Knuckle-Dragging Ultrahawks Dominate Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy Team.” And a web video by New Orleans music publisher Louie Ludwig — “These Guys” — ran through a rogue’s gallery of former Bush-Cheney team members who, the video implies, brought us the Iraq War. “So what happened to these guys?” intones the Tony Soprano sound-alike narrator. “They work for this guy,” a.k.a. Romney.

Even some Republicans voiced alarm about the roster. “…[S]ome of them are quite far to the right,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Morning Joe. “And sometimes they might be in a position to make judgments or recommendations to the candidate that should get a second thought.” Powell cited Romney’s assertion in March that Russia was “our number one geopolitical foe.” Retorted Powell, “Come on, Mitt, think. That’s simply not the case.”

So imagine the surprise two weeks ago when news broke that Robert Zoellick, the just-departed World Bank president, had been named to head Romney’s national security transition team.

Romney’s Foreign Policy Mistake: A Big One,” proclaimed Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, whose Right Turn column channels neocon thinking. “For foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema,” she said, describing him as one-time “right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A. Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance.”

“This was the neocons shooting a warning shot across not just Zoellick’s bow, but Romney’s,” a senior Republican outside the campaign said to me. “He’s largely undeclared and undefined on foreign policy. So the neocons are making clear that they will push for certain people, and push against centrists like Zoellick.”

Actually, Romney’s foreign policy advisory team of 40-plus runs the gamut from classic Reaganite peace-through-strength types like former Navy Secretary John Lehman and one-time UN ambassador Rich Williamson, to neocons like former Iraq occupation spokesman Dan Senor. A majority are veterans of the Bush-Cheney administration. Divided into “task forces” on various subject areas, they generate position papers, funneled through Boston coordinator Alex Wong.

But I’m told most rarely meet or speak with the candidate himself. A number fret that they aren’t sure who, if anyone, has Romney’s ear. “Its a black box to me,” said one. Confided another: “There are a lot of advisers, but there’s not a lot of direct advising going on.”

They are deathly afraid of being quoted, for fear of being ostracized for breaking the team code. But some of the more neoconservative members made clear they did indeed have their noses out of joint over the Zoellick appointment because they felt blindsided. Others were dismayed because the Boston political team seemed surprised by the firestorm it set off. “You can’t say they were sending a signal, because sadly, I’m not sure they knew what the signal meant,” said one.

The heart of the neocons’ concern, inside and outside the campaign, is they’re not entirely sure where Romney’s gut instincts lie. They know that he’s committed to spending more on defense and standing by Israel — “that seems a hard core belief” — and is vowing a tougher line with Russia and China. But they worry that his few foreign policy appearances, like his speech to the VFW last month, focused too much on bashing President Obama and expressing generalities like his belief in “American exceptionalism.”

That doesn’t impress some some centrist Republican foreign policy hands either. “American exceptionalism isn’t a worldview,” sniffed one. “It’s a slogan.”

Former ambassador Williamson, who by most accounts does have Romney’s ear, pushed back. “It’s pretty straight-forward. Mitt Romney believes in American exceptionalism,” he said. “He believes America and the world are better off when America leads. And he embraces the bipartisan history of those two strands, which goes from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan. Those who suggest they’re confused about his approach on foreign policy either aren’t listening or are in denial.”

Williamson griped about the “echo effect” of the complaints. “People are constantly looking for platforms to litigate their views, and Romney is now the target. So the neocons are saying he’s not neocon enough. The realists are saying, he’s not realist enough. It’s crazy. It makes it almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation about policy. Romney doesn’t fit into the cookie cutter.”

So what does this say about whether Romney is an interventionist? Does his promise to be tougher against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons mean he’d turn to military intervention? Senior Republican figures outside the campaign disagree.

One centrist who had opposed George W. Bush’s going to war in Iraq said with some confidence, “I’m not alarmed by his crowd, because I think Romney himself is a moderate. Romney seems to be a pretty grounded, mature individual who wouldn’t take America on reckless overseas adventures.”

Yet Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who vigorously supported the Iraq War and has advocated a John McCain-like interventionist stance toward Syria and Iran, feels comfortable too. “Whoever is president next, I think he will have to use force to stop Iran. I wouldn’t rule it out for Obama,” he said. “I just think Romney would be a more reliable bet not to shrink from the use of American military power to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

How to explain the comfort level on both ends of the spectrum? “Romney is a Rorschach test, and so is his team,” said one prominent outsider. “You can find traditional ‘Bush 41′ pragmatism and neocon dogma.”

How would a “President Romney” resolve that tension within his own team? Williamson said he’d welcome competing views. “He’s trained in law and business to look at hard evidence and do analysis and make decisions,” said Williamson. “He does that on foreign policy as well. People pose the intervention question as if the choice is between passivity and boots on the ground.” Romney called months back for reaching out to the Syrian opposition and arming them as well, Williamson said. “There are lots of ways to intervene, lots of tools in the box. You don’t get to the range of robust military intervention until you exhaust the others.”

So what’s the American voter to think or expect? Right now, the voters don’t seem to care. After all, this is an election about who can take care of business on the home front. But that’s what voters looked for in 2000 too. George W. Bush — the last Republican nominee with no foreign policy background — reassured the public and the chattering classes by picking a VP nominee with deep national security experience, Dick Cheney. And he surrounded himself with a bench of advisers, dubbed The Vulcans, who ran the gamut from centrists Powell to the more hawkish Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and neocon Paul Wolfowitz. Then 9/11 happened, the advisers battled, and Americans finally saw where Bush’s gut instincts lay.

Polls show Mitt Romney’s world view doesn’t matter much to voters now. But if he’s elected, it may suddenly matter a great deal.