Where does GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney stand on foreign policy? That’s a question that even his advisers are asking. He went and said that we shouldn’t negotiate with the Taliban and that we should defeat the Taliban, even as many of his advisers and supporters are looking at a negotiated end to the fighting in Afghanistan — a political settlement.
Set aside for the moment that many of Mr. Romney’s supporters and foreign policy advisers argue that after a decade at war, the only option is a political settlement, which means talking to some elements of the Taliban. Stephen Hadley, the former national security adviser to George W. Bush, has argued this ‘would not — as some have suggested — constitute ‘surrender’ to America’s enemies.’ A co-chairman of Mr. Romney’s working group on Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Shinn, who also served Mr. Bush, was co-author of perhaps the best single unclassified document on the complexities of those negotiations, entitled ‘Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer.’ It argued that a negotiated deal would ‘obviously be desirable’ if elements of the Taliban could be persuaded to renounce violence and take ‘some role in Afghan governance short of total control.’
It was just one example of what Mr. Romney’s advisers call a perplexing pattern: Dozens of subtle position papers flow through the candidate’s policy shop and yet seem to have little influence on Mr. Romney’s hawkish-sounding pronouncements, on everything from war to nuclear proliferation to the trade-offs in dealing with China. In the Afghanistan case, ‘none of us could quite figure out what he was advocating,’ one of Mr. Romney’s advisers said. He insisted on anonymity — as did a half-dozen others interviewed over the past two weeks — because the Romney campaign has banned any discussion of the process by which the candidate formulates his positions.
‘It begged the obvious question,’ the adviser added. ‘Do we stay another decade? How many forces, and how long, does that take? Do we really want to go into the general election telling Americans that we should stay a few more years to eradicate the whole Taliban movement?’ In phase one of a long presidential campaign, Mr. Romney could duck those questions: the spotlight moved to the wisdom of the economic stimulus and the auto-industry bailout, contraception and, now, same-sex marriage and high school bullying.
It’s one thing to sound tough and make definitive statements that somehow distinguish oneself from the President and his foreign policy positions. It’s quite another to find that those positions don’t even hold up to closer scrutiny within the party, let alone in the general election campaign.
Some of this is ongoing fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trying to figure out the direction for American foreign policy in coming years — assessing threats, how and where to use military power and other foreign policy efforts to achieve strategic and tactical interests for the US and its allies, and how to reconcile competing interests in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The ongoing row over Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a case in point. Romney wants people to believe that if President Obama is reelected Iran will have a nuclear weapon, but if Romney’s elected they will be thwarted. That flies in the face of the evidence that shows Iran will continue working towards nuclear weapons regardless of who is in the White House, and that unless there’s concerted military action against multiple targets within Iran, there’s not much the US or anyone else could do to stop Iranian nuclear ambitions.
Sanctions can only do so much, and once you shine a light on Romney’s actual policy choices on Iran, there’s not much there there. His silence and ambiguity on the subject masks the fact that the US faces a situation with no good outcomes and few positive alternatives.
Negotiations and working with the EU and Russia will have to continue, and a multilateral position may not keep Iran from going nuclear, but it will make taking action down the line easier than if the US takes the unilateral approach.
Thus, he’s left with trying to claim that he’ll somehow do things differently without actually saying what his different actions would be.