Mitt Romney's Neocon War Cabinet

It's safe to say that foreign policy was not the strong suit of this year's contenders for the GOP presidential nomination. Rick Perry labeled the Turkish government "Islamic terrorists." Newt Gingrich referred to Palestinians as "invented" people. Herman Cain called Uzbekistan "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" and memorably blanked when asked what he thought of NATO's incursion into Libya. Michele Bachmann pledged to close the US embassy in Iran, which hasn't existed since 1980. Rick Santorum gave a major foreign policy speech at a Jelly Belly factory in California.

Yet though the candidates and their views were often hard to take seriously, their statements on foreign policy reflected a more disturbing trend in the GOP. Despite facing a war-weary public, the candidates — with the exception of Ron Paul, an antiwar libertarian, and Jon Huntsman, a moderate internationalist — positioned themselves as unapologetic war hawks. That included Mitt Romney, marginally more polished than his rivals but hardly an expert. Given Romney's well-established penchant for flip-flopping and opportunism, it's difficult to know what he really believes on any issue, including foreign affairs (the campaign did not respond to a request for comment). But 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.

Romney is loath to mention Bush on the campaign trail, for obvious reasons, but today they sound like ideological soul mates on foreign policy. Listening to Romney, you'd never know that Bush left office bogged down by two unpopular wars that cost America dearly in blood and treasure. Of Romney's forty identified foreign policy advisers, more than 70 percent worked for Bush. Many hail from the neoconservative wing of the party, were enthusiastic backers of the Iraq War and are proponents of a US or Israeli attack on Iran. Christopher Preble, a foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute, says, "Romney's likely to be in the mold of George W. Bush when it comes to foreign policy if he were elected." On some key issues, like Iran, Romney and his team are to the right of Bush. Romney's embrace of the neoconservative cause — even if done cynically to woo the right — could turn into a policy nightmare if he becomes president.

If we take the candidate at his word, a Romney presidency would move toward war against Iran; closely align Washington with the Israeli right; leave troops in Afghanistan at least until 2014 and refuse to negotiate with the Taliban; reset the Obama administration's "reset" with Russia; and pursue a Reagan-like military buildup at home. The Washington Monthly dubbed Romney's foreign policy vision the "more enemies, fewer friends" doctrine, which is chillingly reminiscent of the world Obama inherited from Bush.

In March the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention told the Romney campaign it could win over "recalcitrant conservatives," reported the Washington Post, by "previewing a few Cabinet selections: Santorum as attorney general, Gingrich as ambassador to the United Nations and John Bolton as secretary of state." That suggestion, which might seem ludicrous, not to mention terrifying, is more plausible than one might think.

In December Gingrich pledged at a forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition that he would appoint Bolton to run Foggy Bottom. But the mustachioed über-hawk, who was a controversial under secretary of state for arms control and UN ambassador in the Bush administration, endorsed Romney instead. Bolton has since campaigned energetically for him, serving as a key surrogate on national security issues. "Many conservatives hope that [will] include accepting a senior national security post in a Romney administration," wrote Jennifer Rubin, a neoconservative blogger for the Post.

Few advisers personify the pugnacity of Romney's foreign policy team better than Bolton. He has been a steadfast opponent of international organizations and treaties and seems never to have met a war he didn't like. Shortly before the invasion of Iraq, he told Israeli officials that Syria, Iran and North Korea would be the next US targets. Over the past few years Bolton has been an outspoken proponent of an Israeli attack on Iran. "Mitt Romney will restore our military, repair relations with our closest allies and ensure that no adversary — including Iran — ever questions American resolve," Bolton said when endorsing Romney. "John's wisdom, clarity and courage are qualities that should typify our foreign policy," Romney responded.

Romney knew little about foreign policy when he ran for president in 2008. An internal dossier of John McCain's presidential campaign said at the time that "Romney's foreign affairs resume is extremely thin, leading to credibility problems." After being branded as too liberal by conservative GOP activists four years ago, Romney aligned himself with Bolton and other neocons in 2012 to protect his right flank. Today there's little daylight between the candidate and his most militant advisers. "When you read the op-eds and listen to the speeches, it sounds like Romney's listening to the John Bolton types more than anyone else," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress. (The Romney campaign's openly gay foreign policy spokesman, Richard Grenell, who had been an indefatigable defender of Bolton as the latter's PR flack in the Bush years, was forced to resign after harsh attacks by anti-gay conservatives.)

Bolton is one of eight Romney advisers who signed letters drafted by the Project for a New American Century, an influential neoconservative advocacy group founded in the 1990s, urging the Clinton and Bush administrations to attack Iraq. PNAC founding member Paula Dobriansky, leading advocate of Bush's ill-fated "freedom agenda" as an official in the State Department, recently joined the Romney campaign full time. Another PNAC founder, Eliot Cohen, counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2009, wrote the foreword to the Romney campaign's foreign policy white paper, which was titled, perhaps not coincidentally, "An American Century." Cohen was a tutor to Bush administration neocons. Following 9/11, he dubbed the war on terror "World War IV," arguing that Iraq, being an "obvious candidate, having not only helped Al Qaeda, but…developed weapons of mass destruction," should be its center. In 2009 Cohen urged the Obama administration to "actively seek the overthrow" of Iran's government.

The Romney campaign released the white paper and its initial roster of foreign policy advisers in October, to coincide with a major address at The Citadel. The cornerstone of Romney's speech was a gauzy defense of American exceptionalism, a theme the candidate adopted from another PNAC founder and Romney adviser, Robert Kagan. The speech and white paper were long on distortions — claiming that Obama believed "there is nothing unique about the United States" and "issued apologies for America" abroad — and short on policy proposals. The few substantive ideas were costly and bellicose: increasing the number of warships the Navy builds per year from nine to fifteen (five more than the service requested in its 2012 budget), boosting the size of the military by 100,000 troops, placing a missile defense system in Europe and stationing two aircraft carriers near Iran. "What he articulated in the Citadel speech was one of the most inchoate, disorganized, cliché-filled foreign policy speeches that any serious candidate has ever given," says Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Romney's team is notable for including Bush aides tarnished by the Iraq fiasco: Robert Joseph, the National Security Council official who inserted the infamous "sixteen words" in Bush's 2003 State of the Union message claiming that Iraq had tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger; Dan Senor, former spokesman for the hapless Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer in Iraq; and Eric Edelman, a top official at the Pentagon under Bush. "I can't name a single Romney foreign policy adviser who believes the Iraq War was a mistake," says Cato's Preble. "Two-thirds of the American people do believe the Iraq War was a mistake. So he has willingly chosen to align himself with that one-third of the population right out of the gate."

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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