Romney’s Mysterious Foreign Policy

The uncertainty over where Mitt Romney or Barack Obama might take U.S. foreign policy in the next four years rests on the vagueness of Romney’s neocon rhetoric and the fact that Obama may veer in new directions because he will be freed from seeking reelection, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Now that presidential nominations are decided in primaries, the U.S. political parties’ quadrennial conventions are often regarded as opportunities for a nominee to define himself to a national audience. The approach of the Republican convention has been the occasion for considerable commentary about the defining that Mitt Romney still has to do, including on foreign policy.

The cover of the Economistasks, “So, Mitt, what do you really believe?” The generally right-of-center publication says it “finds much to like” in Romney but expresses some of its strongest doubts regarding what Romney has said so far on foreign policy, specifically mentioning China, immigration, and “his attempts to lure American Jews with near-racist talk about Arabs and belligerence against Iran.”

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. (Photo credit:

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, in commenting about the undefined aspects of Romney’s foreign-policy posture, writes, “Other than his support for Israel and rhetorical shots at Russia and China, it’s a mystery what Romney thinks about major international issues and where he would take the country.”

In trying to identify the direction a President Romney would take the country’s foreign relations, Ignatius cites the National Interest‘s Robert Merry, who explains that the “default position” of the party that is about to nominate Romney is that of the neoconservatives. Ignatius also presents what he describes as a “contrary view” from an anonymous but prominent neocon who is sympathetic to Romney but disappointed that he “has done nothing to present a coherent foreign policy” and instead has conducted a campaign that on foreign matters has consisted of little more than “opposition research” and “drive-by shooting of Obama.”

Actually these two views are not contradictory. The neocon presents a fair description of the foreign-policy side of Romney’s campaign, while Merry is correct that in any intramural contest among Republicans over actual policy, there is no other current school of thought that seems able to overpower the neoconservatives.

What is a genuinely open-minded voter who regards foreign policy as important, and wants to cast his or her ballot partly on the basis of foreign policy and not just according to an opinion about abortion or Obamacare or some other domestic issue, to make of this campaign? I am not implying that such voters constitute a large part of the electorate, but any who do exist deserve to be commended for their attitude toward the election and deserve guidance in how to act on their good intentions.

One possible approach would be to accept the inability to make clear foreign-policy distinctions between candidates and just vote based on any preferences one has on domestic issues. Ignatius cites an anonymous “prominent Republican” who would seem to lend support to this approach by saying that once in office any president responds to the foreign realities he faces and that policy doesn’t really vary much from one administration to another, regardless of what was said in campaigns.

It is true that a large proportion of foreign policy is driven by those realities and that election campaigns artificially amplify apparent differences. But it is simply not true that the electorate’s choice matters as little in foreign policy as the statement implies.

A glaring case in point is what became by far the biggest part of the immediate past administration’s foreign policy: the Iraq War. The war was a project of the neoconservatives and assertive nationalists who dominated that administration. The war had huge costs and consequences for U.S. interests. Such a war would not even have been raised as a possibility under a President Gore.

Choosing a president matters a lot for foreign policy, and a foreign-policy-minded voter can choose intelligently even if unable to predict specific policies that one or the other candidate would implement. The vagueness and omissions of campaign rhetoric are one reason for the unpredictability. Those foreign realities, some of which have a way of suddenly going bump in the night, are another reason.

The Iraq War again illustrates the point. Voters could not have predicted in 2000 that one of the candidates would as president initiate such a war, mainly because they could not have predicted the event that made the war politically possible by causing a sea change in American public attitudes about national security: the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Anticipating the foreign policies of different candidates may not be a prediction of specific policies, but it can entail a plausible estimate of different relative likelihoods of different types of policies. Campaign rhetoric and the proclivities of prominent advisers provide some basis for making such an estimate (as could have been done to some extent with candidate George W. Bush and the neocons, some of whom already were openly advocating the use of force to overthrow the Iraqi regime even though their political opportunity to do so had not yet come).

The default ideology of a candidate’s political party, as described by Merry in the case of today’s Republicans, provides still more of a basis. (James Kitfield’s article on the influences bearing on Romney’s foreign-policy views is an excellent tutorial on the subject.)

Sometimes a candidate has a real foreign-policy record to go on, although not as often in recent times as today. Four of the first six presidents of the United States had been secretaries of state; most of our recent presidents have come up career tracks much farther removed from foreign policy.

But when an incumbent runs for reelection, as is the case this year, there is a very substantial record to go by. The voter/estimator can assess the wisdom or lack of wisdom displayed in that record, and if the alternative is, in Ignatius’s word, a mystery, can factor in his or her risk propensity in deciding whether or not to take a chance on something different.

Second-term policies are, admittedly, not identical to first-term policies, partly because of what does and does not happen to go bump in the night. But when an incumbent is running against a non-incumbent, a more fundamental difference is involved. As I have suggested before, it is the difference between a president who will never be running for anything again, with all that implies in terms of being freed from political dependencies, and a president who will be running for reelection from his first day in office, with all that implies in terms of staying in the good graces of those who helped to elect him once and whom he will need to elect him again.

There is indeed much to perplex the voter who wants to think seriously about foreign policy, but there also is plenty of basis, notwithstanding the mysteries, for making a well-grounded choice.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

11 comments for “Romney’s Mysterious Foreign Policy

  1. Macpappy
    August 30, 2012 at 20:50

    We have always had enemies in the middle east. All Muslims are enemies to anyone that is not Muslim. Scholars, really, 911 an inside job. What does one say in the face of such idiocy?

    • incontinent reader
      September 1, 2012 at 11:27

      Seventeen hundred architects and engineers disagree and have been advocating that the 911 investigation be reopened. A steel frame building housing a massive CIA operation not hit by anything, but pancaking within the building footprint, and hundreds of other facts shoveled under the rug? Really, what does one say of such an incompetent and questionable investigation? Maybe revisit it, and do it thoroughly this time?

  2. Macpappy
    August 30, 2012 at 00:14

    Why was the US & the UK “told” by the “Bankers” to start the “War on Islam”?
    You are delusional. Here are the facts.
    The United States has been at war with Islam since 1801 and the Barbery States Muslims. Because the Muslim religion denies the right for Americans to live and practice their choice of religions, and chooses to kill American whereevere they can, we stay at war. Don’t blame the banks, we would be at war with Muslims even if we had to use sticks.

    • F. G. Sanford
      August 30, 2012 at 08:36

      You might want to check your historical facts. The Treaty of Tripoli was drafted under the administration of President George Washington, ratified by the Senate, and signed by President John Adams. It became public knowledge upon publication in The Philadelphia Gazette on 17 June 1797. As can be clearly seen by any lucid reader with a rudimentary understanding of English, the Founding Fathers had no animosity toward the Muslim religion and denied that our government was founded on “Christian” principles. This isn’t my opinion. It is the consensus of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. So…whose point of view do YOU represent?

      “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

      • Macpappy
        August 30, 2012 at 20:44

        The point I represent.

        In March 1785, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman (or Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja). Upon inquiring “concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury”, the ambassador replied:
        It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once. [19]
        Jefferson reported the conversation to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay, who submitted the Ambassador’s comments and offer to Congress. Jefferson argued that paying tribute would encourage more attacks. Although John Adams agreed with Jefferson, he believed that circumstances forced the U.S. to pay tribute until an adequate navy could be built. The U.S. had just fought an exhausting war, which put the nation deep in debt. Federalist and Anti-Federalist forces argued over the needs of the country and the burden of taxation. Jefferson’s own Democratic-Republicans and anti-navalists believed that the future of the country lay in westward expansion, with Atlantic trade threatening to siphon money and energy away from the new nation on useless wars in the Old World.[20] The U.S. paid Algiers the ransom, and continued to pay up to $1 million per year over the next 15 years for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages.[citation needed] A $1 million payment in ransom and tribute to the privateering states would have amounted to approximately ten percent of the U.S. government’s annual revenues in 1800.[21]
        Jefferson continued to argue for cessation of the tribute, with rising support from George Washington and others. With the recommissioning of the American navy in 1794 and the resulting increased firepower on the seas, it became increasingly possible for America to refuse paying tribute, although by now the long-standing habit was hard to overturn.
        Declaration of war and naval blockade
        “Immediately prior to Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801, Congress passed naval legislation that, among other things, provided for six frigates that ‘shall be officered and manned as the President of the United States may direct.’ … In the event of a declaration of war on the United States by the Barbary powers, these ships were to ‘protect our commerce & chastise their insolence — by sinking, burning or destroying their ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them.'”[22] On Jefferson’s inauguration as president in 1801, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha (or Bashaw) of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 from the new administration. (In 1800, Federal revenues totaled a little over $10 million.) Putting his long-held beliefs into practice, Jefferson refused the demand. Consequently, on May 10, 1801, the Pasha declared war on the U.S., not through any formal written documents but in the customary Barbary manner of cutting down the flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate.[23] Algiers and Tunis did not follow their ally in Tripoli.
        In response, “Jefferson sent a small force to the area to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression, but insisted that he was ‘unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.'” He told Congress: “I communicate [to you] all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of this important function confided by the Constitution to the Legislature exclusively their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight.”[22] Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli “and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify.”

        The schooner USS Enterprise defeated the 14-gun Tripolitan corsair Tripoli after a fierce but one-sided battle on August 1, 1801.
        In 1802, in response to Jefferson’s request for authority to deal with the pirates, Congress passed “An act for the Protection of Commerce and seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan cruisers”, authorizing the President to “…employ such of the armed vessels of the United States as may be judged requisite… for protecting effectually the commerce and seamen thereof on the Atlantic ocean, the Mediterranean and adjoining seas.”[24] “The statute authorized American ships to seize vessels belonging to the Bey of Tripoli, with the captured property distributed to those who brought the vessels into port.”[22]
        The U.S Navy went unchallenged on the sea, but still the question remained undecided. Jefferson pressed the issue the following year, with an increase in military force and deployment of many of the Navy’s best ships to the region throughout 1802. The USS Argus, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, Enterprise, Intrepid, Philadelphia and Syren all saw service during the war under the overall command of Commodore Edward Preble. Throughout 1803, Preble set up and maintained a blockade of the Barbary ports and executed a campaign of raids and attacks against the cities’ fleets.

        • incontinent reader
          September 1, 2012 at 17:46

          I don’t think that this example is very helpful in proving the unprovable, namely that Islam is such a bigoted religion that it seeks to destroy all “infidels”. This was a territorial issue where the Pasha of Tripoli in seeking a tribute for passage in the neighboring waters invoked religion.

          C’mon, now. Rabbi Ovadia has been quoted as stating that all gentiles should serve for the benefit of the “chosen people”, and other fanatical rabbis in Israel, not so long ago during Operation Cast Lead incited the young soldiers in the IDF to kill without second thoughts, while referring to Palestinians as “cockroaches”, but we don’t believe that this means everyone who is Jewish is so stupid or bigoted as to believe it, or that it somehow taints Judaism, which is one of the great religions. Instead, we look to some of the great Jewish religious leaders of our time for inspiration, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

          Ultimately, all of the peoples of the region must sit down and make a serious effort to seek peace. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, our own country’s efforts in the region have been counterproductive, and intentionally so.

    • Hillary
      August 30, 2012 at 11:00

      “Every time I hear that Israel is America’s only friend in the Middle East, I remember that before Israel, America had no enemies in the Middle East” –

      Of course its not in hasbara Macpappy or Jewish interest to bring awareness of this to the American public.

  3. Macpappy
    August 30, 2012 at 00:06

    David is known for distorting American leaders’ statements to support Israeli propaganda against Muslim nations.

    That is hilarious, Israeli propaganda against Muslim nations. I never seen any. Besides, the Israelis don’t need to bad mouth Muslim nations, we have all heard the leaders of these nations say from their own lips that they seek the total destruction of Israel. After a statement like that and the way Iran comes off I don’t think any intelligent American needs propaganda to see who is at fault in this issue.

  4. Hillary
    August 29, 2012 at 21:17

    Duplicate comment detected; it looks as though you’ve already said that!

    “Romney’s Mysterious Foreign Policy”

    There is NOTHING mysterious about Romney’s Foreign Policy it is the same as Obamas’s and G.W.Bush and previous US Presidents.

    Back in 1815 Nathan Mayer Rothschild made his famous statement,

    “I care not what puppet is placed upon the throne of England to rule the Empire on which the sun never sets. The man who controls Britain’s money supply controls the British Empire, and I control the British money supply.”

    “If my sons did not want wars, there would be none.” Gutle Schnaper (Mayer Amschel Rothschild’s wife speaking on her deathbed in 1849)

    Why was the US & the UK “told” by the “Bankers” to start the “War on Islam”?

    US Foreign Policy is directed by the Federal Reserve but nobody can say so.

  5. F. G. Sanford
    August 29, 2012 at 09:41

    Our country currently spends 54% of our tax revenue on defense. That is the reality. The defense industry lobbyists and the pro-Israel lobbyists play a significant role in maintaining that disparity. To maintain this fiscally imprudent situation, our government borrows money, for which it pays interest. Interest is money that banks get for doing nothing. So, the financial industry also lobbies to maintain this charade. Oil companies are more profitable than ever, despite the notion that resources are dwindling. They are, but the fear factor serves to magnify the profitability of our currently misguided energy strategies. All of these entities avoid paying a reasonable share of taxes due to lobbying influence and the propagation of national paranoia. This is the reality of the national security state. Foreign policy is irrelevant. If there were no foreign policy issues, we would invent them to maintain this charade. The city of Camden, New Jersey, one of the most crime-ridden, structurally deteriorating cities in the U.S. Has apparently decided to lay off its entire police force of (only) 270 officers to remain solvent. At the same time, we give Israel a minimum of $3 Billion a year in aid. Back-channel contributions make it way more than that.

    So, does the President have any control over foreign policy? Does domestic policy matter? Do ordinary citizens matter? Suppose this country was a household, and we spent 54% of our income on guns and ammunition, then borrowed money to pay for food and electricity. And, at the same time, we had a belligerent brother-in-law who constantly vandalizes the neighborhood, and we pay his legal fees and damage settlements to keep him out of trouble. This is our foreign AND domestic policy in a nutshell, and the President has no control over it. Who we vote for will not change this dysfunctional situation. It will take an implosion of some sort. Either an economic collapse, an unforeseen military debacle, a natural disaster or some unimaginable “black swan” event. Regardless of how bad things get, the defense industry, the financial sector and the oil companies will not suffer. Perhaps the wisest strategy is to vote for the party most likely to exacerbate the dysfunctional nature of this situation so as to hasten the onset of the collapse. I’ll leave that to the reader to choose. Personally, I’m withholding my vote this time. I have no desire to be complicit in the destruction of my country.

    • Macpappy
      August 29, 2012 at 23:58

      I’m withholding my vote this time. I have no desire to be complicit in the destruction of my country.

      It is amazing that you can’t see beyond you own emotions. See, it folks like you who say, “I’ll not vote, that will show them” that allows the very things to happen that you don’t like.
      Not voting makes no statement at all. A write in is better than a dead vote.
      Go ahead, give it a thought.

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