Romney Foreign Policy Bench Impresses

During the very start of George W. Bush's first presidential run in mid-1999, Robert Zoellick -- now head of the World Bank -- was tasked with organizing a myriad of advisory committees to the Bush Campaign.

The focus of these committees ranged from trade to the domestic economy to national security questions on many tiers and across regions.  At the time, it appeared that Zoellick had tied up most of the high quality policy practitioners who tilted Republican or Independent across Washington's rich think tank ecosystem, thus stealing most of the creative op-ed writing and policy punditry talent away from other Republican contenders.

Interestingly, after John McCain lost the primary battle with George W. Bush, McCain began investing much more heavily in building relationships with key think tanks -- including the New America Foundation -- and also launched a couple of think tanks himself, one on media reform and the other on campaign finance.

Mitt Romney may be taking a page out of the George W. Bush/Zoellick playbook in the announcement this past Friday of his roster of national security advisers. While I found myself disappointed in Romney's articulation of a foreign policy vision, I was much more impressed by those names who appear, and also don't appear, on Romney's advisory list.

I can't remember a time when I haven't seen Bill Kristol listed as a key national security adviser to the frontrunning GOP candidate, but his name is not there. Elliot Abrams, a top tier national security voice in the G. W. Bush White House and senior staff at the Council on Foreign Relations, also did not make the list.

Frank Gaffney, President of the Center for Security Policy, who has been an active proponent of the anti-Sharia fearmongering movement in America is also not listed. John Bolton is not there, at least not in person -- though perhaps in spirit via a couple of proxies. The American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka is not listed on the female-light list, though her husband is on one of the working groups.

Interestingly, out of the top 24 advisers Romney announced, only three are women -- Paula Dobriansky, Kerry Healy, and Meghan O'Sullivan.

Among the Advisers are Cofer Black -- who used to run some of the key anti-terror black ops before becoming Vice Chairman of Blackwater (which is left off of his official bio tag on Romney's site); former UN Management Official Christopher Burnham who is known to be very close to former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton; former Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and former NSA Director General Michael Hayden -- two of the countries leading authorities on cybersecurity and broad homeland security. Both Chertoff and Hayden are the Chuck Hagels of the list -- mostly non-ideological, completely pragmatic and realistic in their views -- a real counterbalance to some of the others on the roster.

Eliot Cohen and Robert Kagan are on the list -- both the most erudite and intellectually honest of the neoconservative establishment. They are the best, with perhaps only Francis Fukuyama their equal -- but Fukuyama is for the moment ducking the political scene as he builds his new nest of work at Stanford University. David Frum, whom I respect, would be a good addition to the Romney neoconservative bench in my view -- and pretty much supports Romney, I think, over the anti-intellectual pale shades of Palin that are his GOP rivals.

John Danilovich is not a household name -- but then neither has the Millennium Challenge Corporation ever become a real headliner. Danilovich used to head the MCC during the Bush years and did an admirable job of working to keep American aid and development assistance moving to nations where it would make a measurable difference. So many want to cut all international assistance that I think it's symbolically important that Romney wanted to show he had people like Danilovich and former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky on board to show a commitment to broad international engagement and to the reform and further development of international institutions. Interestingly, the section on engagement and institutions was about the only really good part of Mitt Romney's recent foreign policy address.

Former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, also on the list, is an interesting guy whom I have gotten to know recently -- but he was John Bolton's next to best friend in the U.S. Senate during the 21 month battle the G. W. Bush administration waged to try and get Bolton's Ambassadorial appointment to the UN confirmed.  Bolton's best friend was probably Senator Jon Kyl -- but Coleman, who has been active in U.S.-China circles of late, could be a proxy of sort for some of John Bolton's more pugnacious, "pound Iran a lot, hug Israel more" posture on foreign policy.

The Heritage Foundation's Kim Holmes is another solid choice for the Romney team -- and while also a fellow traveler of the kick-every-international-institution in the knees John Bolton school, he is thoughtful, has an open mind and listens to alternative points of view, and knows how to engage in civil debate -- something increasingly in short supply in Washington. So, though I see the world differently than Holmes, I'd have a beer or glass of wine with him any time and be interested in his views on reforming international institutions.

John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy and a former carrier-based aviator, is an interesting choice for the Romney team as he has recently written a broadside in a military journal against the Navy's management, lamenting the loss of confident swagger among Navy servicemen in the past in favor of politically correct debates about women and gays. Lehman isn't calling for a repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell in the way that Michele Bachmann has, but Lehman's remarks may open Romney up for an attack by those in the gay community and gay-friendly community worried that he would roll back rights recently secured.

Some of the more balanced realists in the Romney camp include former Department of Defense Comptroller Dov Zakheim who is often wrongly confused as a neoconservative.  Zakheim chuckled once when he said to me that "neoconservatives were once liberals, and I was never a liberal."  Former Congressman Vin Weber -- who has been a part of a huge number of the bipartisan foreign policy study group efforts in Washington these past many years operates in the pragmatic center with a conservative tilt.  Eric Edelman, who is the defense establishment neoconservative policy hand realists most like, is also very balanced, thoughtful, and civil in his views -- none of the flamboyance of other better known neocons.  Mitchell Reiss, a former director of policy planning at the State Department and now president of Washington College, is in general a realist who believes in the power of harsh, decisive military punch against enemies as a first step toward talking with terrorists.

CFR President Richard Haass' protege Megan O'Sullivan who rise high in the Bush Administration for her counsel on Afghanistan and Iraq is also on the team. Despite the miscalculations on Iraq and the subsequent over-dedication of resources toward Afghanistan by the Obama administration, O'Sullivan's counsel on these issues and writing has been steady and based on serious consideration of cost-benefit scenarios -- none of the "never give up, never surrender" stuff that Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot likes to offer.

Dan Senor is on the team as well -- and is controversial among a lot of groups for spinning reality more than offering the public true reads on what was going on in Iraq. Senor is also at the Council on Foreign Relations and is probably pretty well steeped in the deeper grit now of how hard and complicated -- and ultimately debilitating -- these wars abroad have been for the United States. I'll need to hear where he comes out before extending my critique. Robert Joseph, also a national security hawk and protege of John Bolton, is on the roster -- but Joseph was very important, along with Eisenhower Fellowships President John Wolf (not on the list) -- in actualizing the Proliferation Security Initiative, which I think has emerged as one of the more important accomplishments in multilateral diplomacy of the GW Bush administration. So thumbs up on Robert Joseph as far as thoughtful national security conservatives go.

There are others I could go into like the human rights oriented Pierre Prosper, or Walid Phares, among the Special Advisers -- or into former arms control hawks like Steve Rademaker whose spouse runs the foreign policy shop at the American Enterprise Institute -- but think my central point is made.

This group of people are not the kind who would surround an Obama presidential campaign, but they are the people who would surround a Bob Dole, or a Jon Huntsman, or a G. W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.

They are diverse, deep thinkers, mostly civil in their willingness to engage alternative ideas, and serious in their views about America's vital interests.  I have a number of disagreements on world view with some of these folks -- but if I were assembling a conference, this would be the crowd I'd want to have there.

Romney has not brought bomb-throwers into this mix, and that's an interesting and mature sign.

Now if he can just get his team to help him pull together better constructed foreign policy speeches!

Photo Credit: Reuters/Chris Keane