Romney Enters Foreign-Policy Debate

In what's being billed as a major address, the former Massachusetts governor will try to distinguish himself from the president

Mitt Romney speaking - Chet Susslin NJ - banner.jpg

When Mitt Romney delivers what his campaign is billing as a major foreign policy address Friday, he will face a pair of difficult challenges: differentiating himself enough from the Obama administration's handling of national security to avoid antagonizing Republican primary voters, while simultaneously avoiding the kinds of extreme positions which could harm him in a general election.

Romney is basing his campaign on his record in the private sector, arguing that prior success in the business world means he has the tools to turn around the nation's moribund economy. But he has also demonstrated a fluency and coherence on foreign policy that goes far beyond that of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP candidates. The only problem is that many of those positions closely resemble Obama administration policies, leaving Romney vulnerable to criticism that he is, in Rick Perry's words, "Obama-lite."

When U.S. commandos killed al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden this summer, for instance, Romney was one of the only major Republican figures to explicitly praise Obama for overseeing the high-risk mission. "Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president," Romney said at the time. By contrast, leading GOP figures like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann mentioned the military and CIA but ignored Obama's role entirely.

Romney's position on Afghanistan, which has evolved in recent weeks, also closely tracks that of the White House. During the June Republican presidential debate, Romney said U.S. troops "shouldn't go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation," arguing that the bulk of the fighting there should be left to the Afghans. Romney also said it was "time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can," subject to the advice of on-the-ground military commanders.

In Friday's speech, Romney will hit Obama hard, accusing him of harming American relationships with allies like Israel and Britain, taking too soft an approach towards Iran, and failing to devote enough money to the Pentagon.

Many of the criticisms -- like attacking Obama for purportedly apologizing too much for past U.S. behavior -- are standard Republican talking points.

"If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president," he will say, according to excerpts released by his campaign. "You have that president today."

But Romney goes further and will outline several specific recommendations, including increasing the rate of the Navy's shipbuilding program from nine to 15 vessels per year and stationing a large naval carrier group in the Persian Gulf to pressure Iran. Peter Feaver, who served on the National Security Council during the Bush administration and now teaches at Duke University, said Romney's foreign policy positions were carefully calibrated towards the general election and designed to signal confidence that he will be the eventual Republican nominee.

"When you're a challenger, the temptation is to say anything to gain attention," Feaver said. "But if you think you're going to win the nomination and possibly the presidency, you don't speak recklessly or take extreme positions."

Feaver cautioned that Romney is far from an Obama clone when it comes to foreign policy.

Romney has accused Obama of simultaneously mishandling both Russia and Iran by canceling much of a planned missile-defense system in Europe to placate Moscow without winning a clear commitment from Moscow to back tough diplomatic and financial measures against Tehran for its ongoing nuclear program.

Romney's critique isn't true - in June, Russia agreed to some of the toughest UN sanctions ever imposed on Iran - but it resonates with many conservatives who share a deep wariness of both Russia and Iran.

Romney has also harshly criticized the administration's handling of the Mideast, arguing that Obama has put undue pressure on Israel to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians and moved too cautiously to address the ongoing violence in Syria.

Even Romney's position doesn't match Obama's as closely as many of his rivals suggest. Obama has a fixed 2014 deadline for withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan, while Romney believes generals should determine the pace, timing and scale of the drawdown. Still, the overall similarities between the two men - Romney and Obama both speak of leaving Afghanistan as quickly as possible - have left the Republican front-runner open to searing criticism from many in his own party.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for instance, recently accused Romney of wanting to leave Afghanistan sooner than Obama and likened the former Massachusetts governor to former Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

"From the party's point of view, the biggest disaster would be to let Barack Obama become Ronald Reagan and our people become Jimmy Carter," Graham said in June.

The Romney campaign declined to comment or to make an adviser available to discuss the candidate's foreign policy views.

The location of Romney's Friday address is more than a touch ironic, given his reputation - fueled by Republican rivals like Perry - for flip-flopping on major issues. In 1999, then-candidate George W. Bush took to the Citadel for a similarly high-profile foreign policy address. Bush focused his remarks on the need to build a missile-defense system and a promise not to commit U.S. troops to "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions." Nine years later, Bush left office with American forces locked in long, poorly-defined conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and missile defense still largely a pipe dream.

Still, the choice of the Citadel is clearly no accident. Instead, it comes as Romney reaches out to the GOP establishment - which is deeply uncomfortable with Perry - and is embraced in turn by high-level veterans of the Bush White House and many of the former president's biggest financial backers. Giving a speech in a location which resonates with many Bush supporters is a chance for Romney to attempt to strengthen those bonds just as his battle with Perry heats up.

On Thursday, for instance, Romney rolled out his campaign's new national security and foreign-policy team, which includes an array of prominent Bush-era officials like former Attorney General Michael Chertoff, former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden, and a pair of former high-level Pentagon officials, Eric Edelman and Dov Zakheim. It also includes Cofer Black, the former director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, who won Bush's affection by promising to bring him bin Laden's head in a box.

Still, the Republican electorate today is much more conservative than the one which selected George W. Bush, and it's far from clear that Romney's positions - nuanced, moderate and largely in keeping with the policies of both Bush and Obama - are what GOP voters are looking for. Perry has outlined a much more muscular foreign policy, talking about sending U.S. troops into Mexico to fight drug cartels and using Predator drones to prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing into the U.S.

Romney is seeking to symbolically assume Bush's mantle as the choice of the Republican establishment when he takes the stage at the Citadel Friday. Republican voters may see him as the second coming of President Obama instead.

Image credit: Chet Susslin/National Journal

Presented by

Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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