On the candidate's move away from the neocons
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."
An opinion piece that Romney published in the Wall Street Journal last Sunday made a similar argument. The Republican nominee accused Obama of failing to use "the full spectrum of our softer power" to help "those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression." And in his speech on Monday, Romney criticized Obama for not doing more to aid the economies of post-Arab Spring countries.
"The dignity of work," Romney said, "and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism."
That rhetoric is a far cry from the language Romney used in a speech in Jerusalem in July. At the time, he called the Middle East a region of "rising tumult and chaos" and warned darkly of the election of an "Islamist president" in Egypt. In last week's Wall Street Journal piece, the new Romney called the Arab Spring "an opportunity to help move millions of people from oppression to freedom."
Colin Kahl, a senior foreign policy adviser in the Obama campaign, scoffed at Romney's changes. He said the Republican nominee was frantically trying to soften his image.
"The Romney campaign is in a desperate final few weeks of trying to reinvent themselves," he said. "I think more in tone than in substance, you saw a slight shift."
Kahl has a point. Romney's recent speeches have been an odd combination of sophistication and pablum. In one passage, he rightly calls for working with Turkey and backing moderate Muslims in the Middle East. In the next, he calls for showing "no daylight" between the U.S. and Israel. Romney correctly highlights the central role that economic growth can play in countering extremism, but then simplistically states that the answer to the region's complex problems is reducing trade barriers.
Don't expect that to change. In the interview, Williamson flatly denied that there were any contradictions in Romney's stances. Instead, he vowed that Romney would continue to aggressively attack Obama on the subject through a pivotal final Oct. 22 presidential debate on foreign affairs.
"If he thinks he's going to be fine," Williamson said, referring to Obama, "he's going to have another bad day."
So far, the Obama campaign has struggled to derail or discredit Romney's new shift to moderate ground. As in domestic policy, Romney stays vague on details and offers contradictory rhetorical tidbits that appeal to divergent voters. Hailing Israel pleases the Christian right. Supporting Turkey charms Republican internationalists.
What Romney actually believes is impossible to know. The former Massachusetts governor may not be a better president than Obama, but in the last two weeks he has been a better politician.
This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partnter site.