Mitt Romney's Extreme Foreign-Policy Makeover

On the candidate's move away from the neocons

RTR35LOB-615.jpgJason Reed/Reuters

It began two weeks ago with a little-noticed speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, where Mitt Romney distanced himself from Tea Party Republicans and defended the legitimacy of American foreign aid programs. And it continued in a speech on Monday at the Virginia Military Institute, where Romney - after months of hailing only Israel - called Turkey and pro-democracy Arab Spring demonstrators American allies as well.

"As the joy born from the downfall of dictators has given way to the painstaking work of building capable security forces, and growing economies, and developing democratic institutions," Romney said, "the President has failed to offer the tangible support that our partners want and need."

Just as in domestic policy, Mitt Romney is softening his rhetoric in foreign affairs. Moving away from more strident stances on supporting Israel, increasing U.S. defense spending and fearing the Arab Spring, he is adopting a more measured tone. The question, of course, is whether voters will embrace the new Romney or see him as an opportunistic chameleon.

Romney's campaign won't acknowledge any official shift, but recent press reports have noted the rising prominence of Richard Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser and veteran diplomat viewed as a relative moderate in Republican foreign policy circles. Williamson led a call with reporters before Romney's speech on Monday and appears to have had a hand in his recent change of tone. Rhetorically at least, the role of neo-conservative advisers - such as former George W. Bush administration officials Liz Cheney and Dan Senor - seems to be waning.

In an hour-long phone interview on Wednesday, Williamson denied any shift - or division - within the Romney campaign. But he presented a far more nuanced version of Romney's approach to the Middle East than displayed on Romney's trip to Israel in July. The Israel trip was organized by Senor, the neo-conservative former Bush administration official.

In a wide-ranging critique of Obama administration policy, Williamson laid out an approach that went beyond backing Israel. As Romney did in his speech on Monday, Williamson said a Romney administration would work with its allies to ensure that Syria's rebels receive missiles that will allow them to shoot down government attack jets and helicopters. And he said a Romney White House would do more to back post-Arab Spring countries as they try to democratize.

In a critique that sounded more as if it were coming from the left than the right, Williamson accused the Obama administration of relying too heavily on drone strikes in counterterrorism operations. He said a Romney administration would do more to address the political, economic and social conditions that foster extremism.

"Drone killings, targeted killings, is not a foreign policy," he said. "It's not even a strategy to deal with Islamic extremism and terrorism."

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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