This past May, Colin Powell appeared on the Morning Joe show to plug his latest book, It Worked for Me. One thing that did not appear to be working for Powell that day, however, was Mitt Romney's candidacy for the U.S. presidency. Losing his customary cool, Powell, one of the last realist grandees in the Republican Party (along with Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger), expressed his vexation with Romney's proclivity for encircling himself with neocon advisors, not to mention declaring Russia America's No. 1 geopolitical enemy. "C'mon, Mitt, think!" Powell said.
Since then, however, Romney has expressed few thoughts that would suggest he is cogitating along Powell's lines. Rather, as he prepares to accept the Republican nomination in Tampa, Florida, Romney will likely denounce President Barack Obama in his acceptance speech as a supine and feckless leader abroad as well as at home, further bolstering the belief that he has been captured by the neocons. Bereft of any real ideas about foreign policy, Romney, like George W. Bush, has become a vessel for some of the most retrograde ideas about foreign affairs that a Republican candidate has ever advanced. Whether the issue is Israel or China, Romney, who has cloaked himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, repeatedly espouses truculent stances that would likely mire America in new conflicts. He has declared that he would brand China a currency manipulator, stated in June on Fox News Radio that Russia remains a "geopolitical foe," and pandered to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And though Romney advisor and prominent neocon Elliott Abrams is arguing that a congressional resolution authorizing force against Iran would be a neat idea, Romney himself says that the president doesn't need any such authorization, but can just go for it. As the Nation warned in May, "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."
Or does it? Is what has rapidly become the conventional wisdom correct? Is Romney a plaything of the neocons? Or might he actually revert to a more moderate and pragmatic tradition of Republicans that began with Dwight Eisenhower (something that I myself was skeptical about in 2010 in Foreign Policy)? Might Romney, to put it bluntly, discover his inner Nixon?
Given the somersaults that previous presidents have performed in moving from the campaign trail to the Oval Office, it's at least worth pondering whether Romney -- the preeminent flip-flopper of our time, after all -- might not perform yet another one. A potentially auspicious sign is that Romney has been longer on sweeping criticisms of Obama than on spelling out just where he would differ from the president. He has brayed about American exceptionalism, while hardly promising anything very exceptional. At most, he has backed a massive and antediluvian shipbuilding plan. While his campaign boasts a number of neocon stars, ranging from the intellectually deft Robert Kagan to the cantankerous John Bolton, he has also appointed Robert Zoellick, a bête noire of the neocons, to head his foreign-policy transition team. He has also successfully sought to water down some of the more reactionary planks that Tea Party types wanted to promulgate in the GOP's official platform, as FP has reported, such as officially jettisoning the two-state solution. In short, the right's fears about Romney -- that he is something of a squish -- may be justified not only on domestic policy, but also on foreign policy, the area where a president has the most unilateral authority as commander in chief.
Romney's evasiveness on foreign affairs has prompted a number of foreign-policy commentators to engage in the modern-day equivalent of the Roman practice of haruspicy. In the Washington Post, for example, David Ignatius discusses the Romney "enigma." In the National Interest, longtime defense reporter James Kitfield calls it "Romney's neocon puzzle." And on the right, Human Events frets, "When it comes to defense and foreign affairs, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has played strategy cards close to his chest for much of his campaign."
Indeed he has. One reason is that foreign affairs commands little interest in the 2012 election. For his part, Obama, as has been widely observed, stole the Republicans' neocon lunch money when he successfully killed Osama bin Laden. Romney may grouse that "Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order" -- though during the 2008 campaign John McCain said unilateral action inside Pakistan was bonkers and that Obama's support for the idea showed his naiveté -- but Obama effectively stilled opposition on national security grounds by dispatching the al Qaeda chief. It's also the case that Obama, to the dismay of some of his supporters, has turned out to be much more of a -- dare one say it? -- neocon than they ever imagined. He retreated on closing the Guantánamo Bay prison. He upped the Predator drone program. And he backed the surge in Afghanistan.