Mitt Romney's Neocon War Cabinet

Shortly after McCain's 2008 defeat, Kagan, Edelman, Senor and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol launched the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neocon successor to PNAC. FPI's mission has been to keep the Bush doctrine alive in the Obama era — supporting a troop increase in Afghanistan and opposing a 2014 withdrawal; advocating a 20,000-troop residual force in Iraq; backing a military strike and/or regime change in Iran; promoting military intervention in Syria; urging a more confrontational posture toward Russia; and opposing cuts in military spending. Three of FPI's four board members are advising Romney.

Edelman, having worked for Dick Cheney in both Bush administrations, is Romney's link to Cheneyworld. (Edelman suggested to Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, the idea of leaking the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame to undermine former ambassador Joe Wilson for his New York Times op-ed detailing the Bush administration's falsified Iraq-Niger connection.) As ambassador to Turkey in 2003, Edelman failed to persuade Ankara to support the Iraq War. Turkish columnist Ibrahim Karagul called him "probably the least-liked and trusted American ambassador in Turkish history." Edelman later moved to the Defense Department, where in 2007 he became infamous for scolding Hillary Clinton when she asked how the Pentagon was planning its withdrawal from Iraq. He's one of nearly a dozen of Romney advisers who have urged that the United States consider an attack Iran.

Senor is best known for his disastrous stint in Iraq under Bremer, when the United States disbanded the Iraqi Army and tried to privatize the economy. In his book on Iraq, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post wrote of Senor, "His efforts to spin failures into successes sometimes reached the point of absurdity." Senor is particularly close to the Israeli right, co-writing the 2009 book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, which reads like an extended investment brochure. He now serves as a conduit between Romney and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Mitt-Bibi will be the new Reagan-Thatcher," Senor tweeted after the New York Times ran a story about the close friendship of the two men, which dates to the late 1970s.

A mixture of domestic politics (trying to make Obama appear weak and courting conservative elements of the Jewish vote) and neocon ideology has led Romney to call for everything short of war on Iran. "Either the ayatollahs will get the message, or they will learn some very painful lessons about the meaning of American resolve," he wrote in a March 5 Washington Post op-ed.

Romney has been similarly hawkish on military spending, another neocon priority. His plan to spend a minimum of 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon would increase its budget by more than $200 billion in 2016, a 38 percent hike over Obama's budget, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Romney's proposal to embark on a second straight decade of escalating military spending would be the first time in American history that war preparation and defense spending had increased as a share of overall economic activity for such an extended period," wrote Merrill Goozner in the Fiscal Times. "When coupled with the 20 percent cut in taxes he promises, it would require shrinking domestic spending to levels not seen since the Great Depression — before programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid began." Such cuts, Goozner noted, "would likely throw the U.S. economy back into recession."

Since the 2010 election, military spending has been a topic of great debate on the right. Fiscal conservatives like Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and the Cato Institute have urged Congress to consider serious Pentagon cuts. "Department of Defense spending, in particular, has been provided protected status that has isolated it from serious scrutiny and allowed the Pentagon to waste billions in taxpayer money," twenty-three conservative leaders, led by Norquist, wrote to Congressional Republicans in November 2010. "Simply advocating more ships, more troops and more weapons isn't a viable path forward," Huntsman echoed during the primary campaign. That view met a furious pushback from the Defending Defense coalition, a joint project of FPI, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation, which mirrored Romney's plan to increase military spending drastically. "When the Soviet Union disappeared, a lot of people on the right failed to notice," Norquist said on Capitol Hill last year [see Robert Dreyfuss, "GOP Fires at the Pentagon," February 14, 2011].

Romney hasn't said what he'd do with a bigger military or how he'd pay for it. But it's safe to assume the money will go toward preserving or enlarging the national security state. Romney's counterterrorism adviser since 2007 has been former CIA operative Cofer Black, another controversial figure from the Bush era. The Daily Beast calls Black "Romney's trusted envoy to the dark side" and "the campaign's in-house intelligence officer." In 2007 Romney sourced Black in refusing to classify waterboarding as torture (and also said he wanted to "double Guantánamo"). As head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center following 9/11, Black supervised the agency's "extraordinary rendition" program, which illegally transported alleged terrorists to secret detention centers abroad, where they were tortured. "After 9/11 the gloves come off," Black infamously testified before Congress. He joined the private security firm Blackwater in 2005, specializing in intelligence gathering for governments and business. More recently, the Daily Beast reported, Romney has relied on Black for security assessments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Iran, including Iran's nuclear program.

The hardliners on Romney's team have sidelined moderates like Mitchell Reiss, the candidate's principal foreign policy adviser in 2008 and former director of policy planning at the State Department under Colin Powell. In December Romney disavowed Reiss's call to negotiate with the Taliban, pledging to defeat the insurgency militarily (which few foreign policy experts believe is realistic) and criticizing the Obama administration's plan to begin withdrawing troops next year. Romney also sided with the likes of Senor over Reiss by backing the Bush surge in Iraq and Obama's escalation in Afghanistan. This black-and-white worldview is dangerously myopic, obsessed with military power and evil foes while ignoring complex challenges like Europe's economic crisis and the Arab Spring. Romney and his chief advisers "see the world through a cold war prism that is totally out of touch with the realities of the twenty-first century," Vice President Joe Biden said recently in a major foreign policy speech.

Romney's case for election rests on his credentials as a competent businessman who can restructure the economy and government. Yet his choice of foreign policy advisers undercuts that sales pitch by elevating radical ideologues who want to spend profligately on unnecessary weapons and wars. If Romney wants to run a fiscally prudent and well-managed country, his GOP model should be Eisenhower, not Bush. But someone like Ike would never make it through a Republican primary today.

This year's GOP primary was supposed to showcase a long-simmering party debate on foreign policy. "The hawkish consensus on national security that has dominated Republican foreign policy for the last decade is giving way to a more nuanced view," the Times reported last June. What was left of the moderate wing of the party was particularly excited about the campaign of Huntsman, Obama's former ambassador to China, who opposed the war in Afghanistan and advocated "a more judicious approach toward foreign entanglements." Huntsman advisers included realist Republicans like former George H.W. Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Council on Foreign Relations chair Richard Haass.

Yet Huntsman withered under blistering attacks from the neocons and other GOP standard-bearers, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham. "I don't think you saw a whole lot of appetite in the party for his views on foreign policy," said Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. And Ron Paul's isolationist views didn't help him in the primaries, either. Indeed, Romney veered right in response to Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Perry and Santorum rather than left to appeal to Huntsman or Paul voters.

Tags: ari berman, foreign policy, george w. bush, gop presidential nomination, mitt romney, war hawk

    • Ari Berman
    • Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He has written extensively about American politics, foreign policy, and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in The New York TimesRolling StoneE...

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