Heilbrunn: On foreign affairs, will Mitt Romney discover his inner Nixon?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hands with

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hands with people after placing a message, written on paper, in the ancient stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. (July 29, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

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This past May, Colin Powell appeared on the "Morning Joe" show to plug his latest book, "It Worked for Me."

One thing that did not appear to be working for Powell that day, however, was Mitt Romney's candidacy for the U.S. presidency. Losing his customary cool, Powell, one of the last realist grandees in the Republican Party (along with Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger), expressed his vexation with Romney's proclivity for encircling himself with neocon advisers, not to mention declaring Russia America's No. 1 geopolitical enemy. "C'mon, Mitt, think!" Powell said.

Since then, however, Romney has expressed few thoughts that would suggest he is cogitating along Powell's lines. Rather, as he prepares to accept the Republican nomination in Tampa, Fla., Romney will likely denounce President Barack Obama in his acceptance speech as a supine and feckless leader abroad as well as at home, further bolstering the belief that he has been captured by the neocons.


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Bereft of any real ideas about foreign policy, Romney, like George W. Bush, has become a vessel for some of the most retrograde ideas about foreign affairs that a Republican candidate has ever advanced. Whether the issue is Israel or China, Romney, who has cloaked himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, repeatedly espouses truculent stances that would likely mire America in new conflicts. He has declared that he would brand China a currency manipulator, stated in June on Fox News Radio that Russia remains a "geopolitical foe," and pandered to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And though Romney adviser and prominent neocon Elliott Abrams is arguing that a congressional resolution authorizing force against Iran would be a neat idea, Romney himself says that the president doesn't need any such authorization, but can just go for it.

As the Nation warned in May, "a comprehensive review of his statements during the primary and his choice of advisers suggests a return to the hawkish, unilateral interventionism of the George W. Bush administration should he win the White House in November."

Or does it? Is what has rapidly become the conventional wisdom correct? Is Romney a plaything of the neocons? Or might he actually revert to a more moderate and pragmatic tradition of Republicans that began with Dwight Eisenhower? Might Romney, to put it bluntly, discover his inner Nixon? Given the somersaults that previous presidents have performed in moving from the campaign trail to the Oval Office, it's at least worth pondering whether Romney -- the preeminent flip-flopper of our time, after all -- might not perform yet another one.

A potentially auspicious sign is that Romney has been longer on sweeping criticisms of Obama than on spelling out just where he would differ from the president. He has brayed about American exceptionalism, while hardly promising anything very exceptional. At most, he has backed a massive and antediluvian shipbuilding plan.

While his campaign boasts a number of neocon stars, ranging from the intellectually deft Robert Kagan to the cantankerous John Bolton, he has also appointed Robert Zoellick, a bête noire of the neocons, to head his foreign-policy transition team. He has also successfully sought to water down some of the more reactionary planks that Tea Party types wanted to promulgate in the GOP's official platform such as officially jettisoning the two-state solution.

In short, the right's fears about Romney -- that he is something of a squish -- may be justified not only on domestic policy, but also on foreign policy, the area where a president has the most unilateral authority as commander in chief.

Romney's evasiveness on foreign affairs has prompted a number of foreign-policy commentators to engage in the modern-day equivalent of the Roman practice of haruspicy. In The Washington Post, for example, David Ignatius discusses the Romney "enigma." In the National Interest, longtime defense reporter James Kitfield calls it "Romney's neocon puzzle." And on the right, Human Events frets, "When it comes to defense and foreign affairs, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has played strategy cards close to his chest for much of his campaign."

Indeed he has. One reason is that foreign affairs commands little interest in the 2012 election. For his part, Obama, as has been widely observed, stole the Republicans' neocon lunch money when he successfully killed Osama bin Laden. Romney may grouse that "Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order" -- though during the 2008 campaign John McCain said unilateral action inside Pakistan was bonkers and that Obama's support for the idea showed his naiveté -- but Obama effectively stilled opposition on national security grounds by dispatching the al-Qaida chief. It's also the case that Obama, to the dismay of some of his supporters, has turned out to be much more of a -- dare one say it? -- neocon than they ever imagined. He retreated on closing the Guantánamo Bay prison. He upped the Predator drone program. And he backed the surge in Afghanistan.

The very fact that foreign affairs occupies so little prominence during the campaign suggests that Romney would, in common with most fledgling presidents, focus during his first year on domestic affairs -- tax cuts, the budget deficit, and unemployment. Foreign affairs would distinctly play second fiddle.

Put otherwise, the notion that Romney would be thirsting for a new war -- a potential new Bay of Pigs, in other words -- at the outset of his presidency is questionable. As with so much concerning Romney, the more likely scenario is that his belligerent talk is simply cheap bluster that he has no intention of acting upon. Even Bush, for all his ranting about an "axis of evil," never had the cojones to take on either Iran or North Korea, settling instead for what he thought would be an easy, glittering victory in Iraq.

What's more, to assume that a Romney administration would be a simple rerun of the Bush years may be mistaken. For one thing, no one could play the role of Dick Cheney to Romney. Unlike Bush, Romney would hardly be inclined to place his presidency at the disposal of his running mate, Paul Ryan, who has no discernible foreign-policy experience, in stark contrast to previous Republican vice presidents such as Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Cheney.

It's also the case that when it comes to cabinet-level positions, Romney would send a strong signal that he wasn't about to embark upon adventures abroad if Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass is appointed secretary of state. And it would be telling if the moderate Evan Feigenbaum, a co-chairman of Romney's Asia-Pacific working group, gets a plum post.

So the truth is that a replay of previous Republican administrations, with neocons duking it out against realists, may be the most likely outcome. Romney, like most of his Republican predecessors, would probably try to split the difference among the neocons, the realists and the tea party types, all vying for the president's ear.

Remember that Reagan, whom Romney constantly invokes, had a number of neocons inside his administration, including Abrams and Jeane Kirkpatrick, but when push came to shove, Reagan sided with realists such as Secretary of State Shultz, who emphasized diplomacy and alliances over bellicose unilateralism. George W. Bush himself reverted to this model in 2006, when he relied on Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice rather than the neocons. The open question, of course, is whether, after a decade of neocon suzerainty in the GOP, enough realists remaining standing to make a difference.

But perhaps the strongest argument for a moderate Romney is his own oleaginous character. In trying to stand for everything that Reagan stood for, Romney has ended up standing for nothing except his own personal advancement. The only thing that would be worse than Romney proclaiming things he doesn't believe is if he believed them. Yes, there's always the chance that Romney will feel forced to cater to the neocons and plunge America into a war with Iran -- which is why voters may end up deciding it's not worth taking the chance to find out whether he puts much credence in his own malarkey about creating a new American century.

Still, the odds are against it. Democrats who warn about Romney provoking China and Russia or bombing Iran may be engaging in their own form of threat inflation. All three are a sideshow next to the economy. Cautious and hard-nosed, shrewd and unprincipled, Romney is undoubtedly aware that the only way he can become a successful president is by fulfilling the right's worst fears about him.

Romney, in other words, needs to pull an Obama. If he plays his cards right and jettisons his foreign-policy flapdoodle upon entering the Oval Office, Romney might even end up earning the grudging respect of moderates and liberals who will be as amazed at his transformation as they were aghast at Obama's morphing into a hawk. Perhaps even Colin Powell will be placated by his performance.

Jacob Heilbrunn is senior editor at the National Interest magazine.

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