Romney’s foreign policy team, then and now

Josh Rogin reports that leaders of Mitt Romney’s 2012 foreign policy brain trust have kept the team together in a secret effort to influence lawmakers and potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates. This operation is called the John Hay Initiative.

My first reaction is that I love the name. John Hay is one of the most underrated figures in American history — a brilliant Secretary of State and an outstanding man of letters. I wrote here about Hay’s novel The Breadwinners.

My second reaction is that, although Romney’s foreign policy team performed well enough to merit an encore, the true story of Team Romney’s 2012 foreign policy efforts is more complicated and more interesting than the “he told you so” narrative that has emerged in the wake of the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy.

It seems strange to recall that two years ago, foreign policy was widely regarded as President Obama’s strong suit. He had ordered the successful raid that killed bin Laden, ended the American involvement in Iraq, and pledged to end it in Afghanistan. Moreover, none of his foreign policy chickens had yet come home to roast (except, right around this time of year, in Benghazi).

Obama’s vulnerability was the economy, so naturally it was here that Romney focused. The trick with regard to foreign policy was to prevent Obama from successfully using this realm to offset his disadvantage on economic issues.

To accomplish this, Romney’s strategy was to criticize Obama’s foreign policy without calling for changes to the key elements of it. With respect to Iraq, for example, Romney argued that the U.S. should have achieved a status of forces agreement before our withdrawal, but he did not argue for a different policy going forward.

Similarly, with regard to Syria, Romney argued that two years earlier Obama should have supported non-jihadist rebels seeking to overthrow Assad, but that it was too late to do so now. It’s ironic, two years later, to hear many establishment Republican foreign policy analysts arguing that we should have supported non-jihadist rebels two years ago, but that it’s too late now.

Helping Syrian rebels may turn out, in perpetuity, to be something we should have done two years ago.

The attack in Benghazi on September 11, coupled with Team Obama’s unwillingness to tell the truth about it, presented Romney with the opportunity to move beyond treading water and actually score foreign policy points against the president. Here was an issue that was about an Obama screw-up that had just happened, not something that happened two years ago and didn’t look all that much like a screw-up in any case.

Moreover, Romney could take an aggressive line on Benghazi without alienating doves or hawks. Doves could believe, plausibly, that if we hadn’t intervened to topple Qaddafi, the chaos that led to the deaths at the American facility would not have occurred. Hawks could believe, plausibly, that if the U.S. had been more engaged in Libya after the toppling of Qaddafi, its consulate would not have been attacked, at least not successfully.

Benghazi, then, was a perfect issue for Romney.

Unfortunately, during the second debate (the first in which foreign policy was discussed), Obama was able, thanks to the assistance of moderator Candy Crowley, to lie his way out of the Benghazi mess temporarily. And rather than try to revisit the matter in the third debate, Romney complacently returned to his strategy of trying to neutralize Obama’s foreign policy advantage, rather than hammering the president on Benghazi or foreign policy in general.

I recite this history not to criticize Romney or his foreign policy team. Sure, they could have done better with Benghazi. But as to the big picture, they reasonably believed it would be suicidal for the candidate to sound like a dreaded “neocon” during the campaign.

Threading the needle by criticizing Obama without calling for greater U.S. engagement in the world’s hot spots was likely the optimal political strategy. After all, a November 2013 survey by Pew Research showed that, by a 52-18 margin, Republicans believed the U.S. does too much, rather than too little, to help solve global problems. Presumably, that was also how Republicans felt in the fall of 2012.

His caution notwithstanding, Mitt Romney was ahead of the curve on foreign policy two years ago. I’m glad his foreign policy team has stayed together for the purpose of influencing lawmakers and potential 2016 presidential candidates.

Now that so many of Obama’s chickens have come home to roast, Team Romney can be less cautious than in 2012 whether or not Romney himself decides to run for president again.

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