Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 and former CEO of the venture capital firm Bain Capital, was the Republican Party's nominee for the 2012 presidential election. His running mate was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).
On the campaign trail, Romney was an enthusiastic proponent of American exceptionalism and U.S. interventionism. However, in his final presidential debate with President Barack Obama in October 2012, the former governor appeared to try to soften his hawkish edge, arguing at one point that "we can't kill our way out of this mess" and suggesting that in dealing with Iran the United States should use international law to indict President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for genocide, stating that the Iranian leader's "words amount to genocide incitation."
In a September 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Romney struck a more confrontational tone, writing: "In this period of uncertainty, we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East—that is, both governments and individuals who share our values. This means restoring our credibility with Iran. When we say an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability—and the regional instability that comes with it—is unacceptable, the ayatollahs must be made to believe us. It means placing no daylight between the United States and Israel. And it means using the full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression."
Romney concluded the op-ed with an allusion to the "American century," an apparent nod to his neoconservative supporters, many of whom were one time organized under the banner of the Project for the New American Century. "If the 21st century is to be another American Century," he concluded, "we need leaders who understand that keeping the peace requires American strength in all of its dimensions."
2012 Campaign Advisers
An early indication that Romney would adopt a neoconservative-oriented foreign policy platform during his 2012 presidential run came in October 2011, when his campaign released a list of people who had been selected to serve on his foreign policy advisory team. Among the advisers were several well known neoconservative ideologues and former Bush administration officials, including Eliot Cohen, Robert Joseph, Robert Kagan, Eric Edelman, Michael Chertoff, Dan Senor, and Walid Phares (a full list of the advisers, including links to profiles on their backgrounds, is available in the sidebar on the right side of this webpage). A number of other conservative elites also served as surrogates on foreign policy for the Romney campaign, including John Bolton and Frank Carlucci.
Romney's choice of advisers raised eyebrows on both the left and the right. Commenting on Romney's team, Colin Powell, secretary of state in the first George W. Bush administration, told MSNBC, "Some of them are quite far to the right, and sometimes they, I think, might be in a position to make judgments or recommendations to the candidate that should get a second thought."
Similarly, Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service wrote that most of the advisers "are known for their neoconservative and strongly pro-Israel views. Remarkably, three of the top advisers … serve on the four-man board of directors of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), the ideological successor to the Project for the New American Century (PNAC)."
In October 2012, a year after he created his campaign's foreign policy team, Romney announced the creation of a campaign "Military Advisory Council," comprised of several dozen retired military officers. Some commentators noted that the council was chock-a-block with former officers who had "left the government only to become highly paid consultants and board members to major weapons makers," as the blog boldprogressive.org put it. Council members included retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, a right-wing pundit on Fox News who has worked for numerous defense contractors, including Loral Defense Systems and Signal Technology Corps; retired General James Conway, a board member for Textron, which produces helicopters and other military hardware; retired former commander of U.S. Strategic Command James O. Ellis, a Lockheed Martin board member; retired air force General Ronald Fogleman, a proponent of missile defenses and longtime ally of hawkish right-wing political factions who has served on the on the boards of Alliant Techsystems, AAR Corporation, and Mesa Air Group; and retired General Tommy Franks, leader of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, whose consultancy Franks & Associates LLC specializes in "disaster recovery."
Romney's tight association with neoconservatives appeared to backfire in various occasions during the campaign. One critical incident was Romney's politicized response to the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other embassy employees amid protests in Benghazi over the U.S. anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. Because U.S. officials in Cairo had condemned the film's inflammatory content prior to the violence in Libya, Romney argued that it was "disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." The remark, released in a statement the very evening the news broke about the killing, was widely criticized for its timing as well as its content.
Instead of walking back his statement in the face of criticism, Romney opted to double down on them, in part because of concerns over neoconservative reaction. The Washington Post reported that Romney told his aides shortly after his initial statement, "We screwed up. This is not good." However, according to the Post, "His advisers told him that, if he took back his statement, the neoconservative wing of the party would 'take his head off.' He stood by it during an appearance in Florida. Two days later, Obama traveled to Joint Base Andrews to meet the four flag-draped coffins."
Support from "pro-Israel" Factions
An issue shared by many of Romney's advisers was their hardline take on Israeli security, reminiscent of the one advanced by neoconservative ideologues and official lobbyist groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As one observer noted, Romney appeared to steer "hard-right on Israel" throughout the campaign, a tendency that was loudly applauded by high-profile "pro-Israel" media pundits like Jennifer Rubin, who repeatedly plugged the former governor's candidacy on her blog at washingtonpost.com.
Romney's clout with the "Israel lobby" was repeatedly put on display during his campaign. During his July 2012 campaign trip to Israel, for instance, Romney attended what the Washington Post called an "intimate breakfast fundraiser," which included "roughly 40 donors, with Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson [seated] immediately to his left." According to the Post, "The presumptive Republican presidential nominee was expected to raise more than $1 million from the donors, who each were required to raise or donate $25,000 to $50,000 to attend the event." Adelson had previously indicated that he would provide "limitless" cash to the Romney-backing super-PAC Restore Our Future.
Romney's campaign also received financial support from a host of other public figures who have backed efforts to promote hawkish, Israel-centric Middle East policies. Two such supporters were former Vice President Dick Cheney and hedge fund mogul Daniel Loeb.
In July 2012, Cheney hosted a Romney fundraising event at his ranch in Wyoming, which raised approximately $4 million for the candidate. Cheney, who joined the board of trustees at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute after leaving office, said at the event: "Whether it's 9/11 or the other kinds of difficulties and crises that arrive … when I think about the kind of individual I want in the Oval Office in that moment of crisis, who has to make those key decisions, some of them life and death decisions, decisions as the commander in chief, who has the responsibility for sending our young men and women in harm's way. That man's Mitt Romney." Despite the generous comments and donations, according to the New York Times, "Mr. Cheney remains unpopular with many Americans, and Mr. Romney's team went to great lengths to avoid any public images of the two men together."
Also in July 2012, Daniel Loeb, founder of the hedge fund firm Third Point LLC, co-hosted a $25,000-per-person fundraiser for the Romney campaign in the Hamptons. The fundraisers' conspicuous displays of wealth evoked derision from some of the Romney camp's critics, who have long argued that the candidate primarily represents the interests of the wealthy. "Mitt Romney's three Hamptons fundraisers on Sunday were like a Priorities USA ad," wrote Salon's Joan Walsh, "except the creative directors of the pro-Obama super PAC would have rejected the script as over-the-top."
Loeb was an important donor to the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) PAC, a neoconservative pressure group whose board has included Bill Kristol, Rachel Abrams, and Gary Bauer. ECI gained notoriety in 2010 and 2011 for its advertising campaigns showing photographs of President Obama with Palestinian leaders captioned with "President Obama: Not Pro-Israel," as well as for its stark calls for war with Iran and its misleading characterization of the Occupy Wall Street movement as "anti-Semitic."
Romney's ties to right-wing Israeli politics extend beyond political factions in the United States. He has a long-standing relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that dates back to the 1970s. There were some indications that this relationship could have influenced Romney's decision-making if he had been elected. In one notable incident, Romney criticized Newt Gingrich during a debate in December 2011 for a remark Gingrich made about the Palestinians, saying: "Before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: 'Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?'" The incident led Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton, to surmise that Romney may be willing to "subcontract Middle East policy to Israel."
Romney and his campaign surrogates frequently accused President Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus" because of the president's affirmation of longstanding U.S. policy that Israel should halt its settlement activity and begin statehood negotiations for Palestine based on Israel's 1967 borders. In May 2011, Romney claimed that Obama "disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace."
In a July 2012 speech in Jerusalem, for example, he referred to Jerusalem as "the capital of Israel," angering Palestinian leaders, who hope that eastern Jerusalem will one day be the capital of an independent Palestine. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, called the remark "unacceptable," adding that "Romney's declarations are harmful to American interests in our region, and they harm peace, security and stability."
Romney also drew fire during his Israel trip for suggesting that the vast disparity in GDP per capita between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories was due in part to "the power of at least culture and a few other things," including "the hand of providence." Erekat responded, saying: "It is a racist statement and this man doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation. It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people."
Commented one U.S. observer: "Mitt Romney offered up a curious assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … suggesting that Palestinian suffering—rather than an obstacle to peace—was actually an encouraging sign of Israel's greatness."
Several months after the Israel visit, a video was leaked from a high-dollar, closed-door fundraiser in Florida that showed Romney articulating an unusually cynical take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Musing that geographical concerns and Palestinians' supposed dedication "to the destruction and elimination of Israel" made a two-state solution to the conflict improbable, Romney suggested that the only viable policy was to "kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."
A key foreign policy agenda item pushed by Romney during the 2012 campaign was to threaten military action to derail Iran's purported nuclear weapons program, about which he argued President Obama had demonstrated an "extraordinary record of failure." Romney's assertions about Iran's program, however, at times appeared misleading and, according to one retired Israeli intelligence chief, were dangerous. In a March 2012 Washington Post op-ed—which coincided with the annual conference of AIPAC—Romney contradicted both the U.S. intelligence community and the International Atomic Energy Agency in claiming that Tehran already had a nuclear weapons program and was "racing to build a bomb."
Responding to the op-ed, former Israeli Mossad chief Efraim Halevy told the Huffington Post that Romney's inaccurate assertions could spur Iran to build a bomb to deter an attack in the event that Romney is elected. He said, "If I'm sitting here in the month of March 2012 reading this, and I'm an Iranian leader, what do I understand? I have nine more months to run as fast as I can because this is going to be terrible if the other guys get in."
Earlier, in November 2011, Romney responded to an IAEA report expressing concern about the potential military intentions of Tehran's nuclear energy program by penning an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he argued that after Iran's rebuff of diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration, "a serious U.S. strategy to block Iran's nuclear ambitions became an urgent necessity. But that is precisely what the administration never provided. Instead, we've been offered a case study in botched diplomacy and its potentially horrific costs." As president, Romney wrote, he would "back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons."
During a November 2011 Republican presidential debate on foreign policy issues, Romney doubled down on his war-with-Iran rhetoric, stating: "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon." Backing up this claim, Romney said that if "crippling sanctions" and other non-military measures do not work, he would pursue military options.
His at-times erratic views on Iran led even some neoconservatives to doubt Romney's understanding of the situation in that country. For instance, Michael Rubin, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the former Massachusetts governor did not appear to understand the Iranian situation clearly. Referring to the Romney's stated goal of "working with" and "support[ing] … insurgents within the country," Rubin said in a November 2011 interview with the Daily Caller: "It kind of showed Mitt Romney doesn't understand the issues behind the rhetoric … If Romney thinks the Iranian opposition is Mujahedeen-e-Khalq [MEK], he's badly mistaken, and he's going to help consolidate the Iranian regime's hold on power. If, on the other hand, he thinks the Green Movement are insurgents, he fundamentally misunderstands that they do not want Iranian liberty and freedom; they just want a little softer approach from the current theocracy."
At least one of Romney's foreign policy advisers, Mitchell Reiss, aggressively promoted the interests of the MEK in Washington, arguing that the U.S. State Department should remove the group from its list of terrorist organizations.
Other Foreign Policy Positions
Romney also targeted Russia and China in his campaign rhetoric. In a March 2012 interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Romney claimed that Russia was "without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They—they fight every cause for the world's worst actors." The claim sparked widespread consternation among Republican Party elites and other observers of U.S. foreign policy, who noted that the remark contrasted sharply with the views of most experts in the field. Asked about the comment, Colin Powell told MSNBC, "Well, c'mon, Mitt; think. That isn't the case."
In contrast to the candidate's stated views on Russia, however, the Daily Beast reported in July 2012 that Vin Weber, a Romney adviser with extensive ties to neoconservative groups, had lobbied for a group on behalf of Ukraine's pro-Russian ruling party. Ukraine's government, noted the conservative journalist Eli Lake, was "condemned by international human rights groups and European governments for alleged corruption, unlawful imprisonment of opposition figures and a slide into authoritarianism reminiscent of Putin's Russia."
In February 2012, Romney turned to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal in an effort to challenge Obama on China. Channelling the rhetoric of other Republican candidates, Romney charged that the Obama administration was "a near supplicant to Beijing" and argued that unless China changes its currency policies "on day one of my presidency I will designate it a currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction. A trade war with China is the last thing I want, but I cannot tolerate our current trade surrender."
Calling Romney's op-ed "pretty silly," Daniel Drezner of Foreign Policy magazine wrote: "It's ludicrous for Romney to claim he doesn't want a trade war in the same breath that he promises 'day one' action against China. No wonder conservatives are labeling [sic] Romney's China policy as 'blaringly anti-trade.' To be blunt, this China policy reads like it was composed by the Hulk. Maybe this will work in the GOP primary, but Romney and his China advisors should know better."
Romney also incorrectly claimed in the op-ed that Obama was weakening the "U.S. military position in Asia." As one commentator stated, "In fact, the Obama administration is increasing the U.S. troop presence in the region and helping to upgrade Taiwan's F-16 fleet. Moreover, Romney's claim that Obama 'plans to cut back on naval shipbuilding' is false. 'The great irony,' [the Center for American Progress'] Lawrence Korb noted back in October, 'is that the level of nine [ships], which Obama has proposed, is higher than at any time during the [George W.] Bush administration.'"
Romney's neoconservative-leaning rhetoric alienated some of his party's elder statesmen on foreign policy, many of whom fit more comfortably in the party's traditional realist wing. Citing Henry Kissinger and Brent Snowcroft in particular, the New York Times reported in May 2012 that some in the party "believe that Mr. Romney has taken approaches too confrontational or too hawkish, or worry that harsh campaign-trail statements could hurt later diplomatic efforts and may signal a drift toward neoconservative passions as the party seeks to take back the White House."
Romney nevertheless struggled to meaningfully distinguish his own policies from the Obama administration's relatively aggressive foreign policy record, as the Los Angeles Times opined in May 2012. "By portraying his opponent as a feckless commander in chief, Romney is playing on historic Republican criticisms of Democrats as insufficiently tough," the paper said. "But that task is more difficult this year as he faces a war-weary public and an incumbent president with some notable foreign policy victories, including the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden." It added, "Romney has roughed up Obama with a hawkish tone—at times bordering on belligerent. Yet for all his criticisms of the president, it has been difficult to tell exactly what Romney would do differently."
Romney gave a major policy speech at the Citadel military academy in South Carolina in early October 2011. Promising to increase defense spending in order to ensure U.S. military dominance during the 21st century, Romney characterized his views using concepts that first gained prominence in the publications of groups like the Project for the New American Century in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He argued that "If America is the undisputed leader of the world, it reduces our need to police a more chaotic world." Comparing himself to President Barack Obama, whose foreign policies the former governor dismissed as "feckless," Romney declared: "If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today."
Romney echoed many of the same views espoused by President George W. Bush, including the idea that the United States could go it alone in international affairs: "While America should work with other nations, we always reserve the right to act alone to prevent our vital national interests."
Among his key focal points were the greater Middle East and Israel, whose existence as a "Jewish state" Romney claimed was a "vital national interest." He argued for a more militarist stance vis-à-vis Iran, stating that "Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable." He added: "In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran's suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world." Specifically, he called for the placement of a U.S. naval carrier group in the Persian Gulf to deter Iran's ambitions.
Among the greatest threats facing the United States, Romney declared, were "Islamic fundamentalism"; the "ripple effects of failed and failing states" where "terrorists may find safe haven"; the "anti-American visions of regimes in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, [and] Cuba"; and "rising nations with hidden and emerging aspirations like China, determined to be a world superpower, and a resurgent Russia."
In its coverage of the speech, the Inter Press Service (IPS) noted that while Romney "gave lip service to the importance of 'soft power,' particularly in regard to dealing with the so-called 'Arab Spring,' his most specific proposal was to increase shipbuilding from nine to 15 ships a year and to keep at least 11 aircraft carrier groups deployed year round, as well as increase spending on a 'multi-layered national ballistic missile defence system.' In other speeches, Romney has proposed devoting at least four percent of U.S. GDP to the Pentagon's base budget, a proposal that would, according to some estimates, increase defense spending by about 14 percent."
Commenting on the speech, Steve Clemons of the New American Foundation told IPS that it was "depressingly conventional in the sense that [Romney] looks at the Pentagon as the source of the country's strength and talks about the economy almost as an afterthought." He added: "Thirty years ago, the U.S. had a third of the world's GDP and a third of what the world spent on defense. Now we have just over 20 percent of the world's GDP and we account for about half of global military expenditures. This kind of approach not only fails to secure America's long-term security interest, but also undermines our economic solvency."
"A Mish-Mash of the Unremarkable and the Terrible"
Prior to his Citadel address, Romney's 2012 campaign made only brief mention of foreign policy. The campaign website's three sections under foreign policy were headed "A Strong Military," "Dynamic Diplomacy," and "Steadfast Alliances." The website stated that as president Romney would "oppose efforts to cut our military budget," "fast-track NATO admission for our allies," and "bolster support for Israel," which the site claims, "has always been and will continue to be our strongest ally in the Middle East." The fast-tracking of NATO admission would seem to be directed at Georgia, which has been a cause-célèbre among neoconservatives since that country's 2008 war with Russia.
Conservative blogger Daniel Larison called the Romney campaign website's foreign policy section "a mish-mash of the unremarkable and the terrible," particularly lambasting the call for a single presidential envoy to oversee all diplomatic activity in certain regions. Commenting on the website's call to "bolster support for Israel," Larison noted: "[H]ow is it possible to bolster it more than it already is? Presumably, this is related to the fourth point concerning criticism of allies, which means that a Romney administration would be even more reflexively supportive of Israel and publicly uncritical of all allies no matter what. It appears that Romney is taking hawkish support for allies to a new extreme."
In 2010 Romney released his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, in order to "bolster the former Massachusetts governor's nonexistent national-security and foreign policy portfolio ahead of a possible 2012 presidential run," according to Spencer Ackerman. The title of the book played on a common Republican criticism of President Barack Obama: that his administration's renewed diplomatic efforts are instead an "apology tour."
In his review of No Apology, Ackerman critiqued Romney's diplomacy-by-envoy policy: "The concept of diplomacy is completely foreign to Romney. He dismisses the State Department as 'assistant secretaries and … bureaucrats' and proposes designating regional relations to 'one individual' who would become a 'presidential envoy or the ambassador from CENTCOM or any of the other regional military commands.' Such an individual would 'encourage people and politicians to adopt and abide by the principles of liberal democracy,' something that 'would be ideal if other allied nations created similar regional positions, and if we coordinated our efforts with theirs.' That's it for diplomacy, and he doesn't have an agenda for global development. Why the world will simply do what America says simply because America says it is something Romney never bothers to consider. High school students at model U.N. conferences have proposed less ludicrous ideas."
When President Obama suggested using Israel's 1967 borders as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal—a longstanding U.S. policy—Romney balked, claiming Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus" and "disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace."
During a 2011 Republican debate in New Hampshire, Romney seemingly bucked neoconservative foreign policy thinking on Afghanistan, stating, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can." But Romney's campaign website and past foreign policy statements appeared to show that this was merely a political answer, not necessarily his planned policies.
Romney infamously stated during his 2008 primary run for the presidency that rather than reverse Bush-era detention policies, he believed the United States should double down on holding alleged terrorists indefinitely. He justified this rhetoric by claiming that alleged terrorists should not have access to legal counsel: "I want them in Guantanamo, where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons, I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo."