Romney picks a side, and Doug Feith believes it is his

Romney delivering his foreign policy speech on Oct. 8. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Follow: feed

On Oct. 8, Mitt Romney gave a speech on foreign policy, setting out his vision of a world in the grips of a Manichean battle.

“I believe that if America does not lead, others will—others who do not share our interests and values,” he said. “And the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us.”

The war he was describing was between democracy and Islamic extremism. Yet if Romney is elected, his speech may be better remembered for what it said, implicitly, about the struggle between another set of implacable foes: the ideological factions of the Republican Party.

The speech’s language appears to have been scrubbed of inflammatory rhetoric: a promise of “actions, not just words” against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a vow that the world would “never see any daylight” between his administration and Israel were about the closest Romney came to saber-rattling. Nonetheless, the speech was quickly embraced by the G.O.P.’s neoconservative policy elite, who read between the carefully prepared lines.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

“He hit, I think, one of the most important themes,” Douglas Feith, a top Defense Department official in the George W. Bush adminstration, told me in a phone interview. “Which is that this administration views the whole problem of Islamist extremism differently from the way Romney does.”

It’s been a while since the American public heard the rhetoric Romney used in the speech at Virginia Military Institute. He worked with metaphors of light and darkness, and invoked the (apocryphal?) image of Iranian pro-democracy protesters chanting, “Are you with us, or are you with them?”

Choosing sides—with force—was the hallmark of the Bush era, which featured bitter clashes between interventionists and the G.O.P.’s competing school of realists, who followed an ideology of national interest associated with seasoned diplomats like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. The neoconservatives may have fared poorly in the shooting wars, but they won the ideological battles. The realist purge was so thorough that when Obama ran in 2008, citing Scowcroft as a model, he won endorsements from marginalized Republicans like Colin Powell.

Now, with a surging Romney speaking their language again, the shadow State Department is savoring a vindication.

“The Obama administration has gone out of its way to try to deemphasize the ideological part of the problem, and to define the conflict as a conflict that the United States has with an organization and its affiliates, rather than an international movement tied together by an ideology,” Feith said. “I think Romney did a pretty good job in making it clear that the problem is broader than Al Qaeda.”

Like many other Bush administration veterans, Feith has spent the last four years in an academic exile, first teaching at Georgetown University and then heading the Center for National Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute. He is not an adviser to the Romney campaign. (Hence his willingness to veer a bit off script, in depicting the Republican nominee as ideologically driven.)

But the campaign’s official roster of advisers is full of his comrades in arms, neoconservative thinkers like Robert Kagan and Eliot Cohen. The New York Times’ David Sanger reported yesterday that Liz Cheney has recently quietly joined the ranks of Romney’s foreign policy counselors.

“This speech was a neocon speech,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “It was what I would have expected from any Weekly Standard editorial.”

Preble considers himself to be a conservative realist, a school with a dwindling enrollment in today’s Republican Party. He has written scathingly of the Bush administration's handling of Afghanistan and Iraq, and listened with dismay as Romney has hinted at a more muscular policy toward repressive regimes in Iran and Syria.

“We are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East,” Romney said in the speech, before quoting a Syrian woman who supposedly said: “We will not forget that you forgot about us.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Middle Eastern liberals would welcome further American intervention—opinion polls and anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly suggest otherwise—Preble questioned the political effectiveness of Romney’s attack on Obama.

“The American people are not enthusiastic about the idea of fighting another war in the Middle East,” he said, in reference to Syria. “The real problem is that the Republican Party’s brand has been so damaged by the Iraq War and the neoconservatives.”

In fact, since Bush’s second term, Republicans have lost their longstanding polling edge on national security issues. Obama has maintained a reasonably good level of public approval, so far, for his handling of foreign policy. This leaves Romney in an unaccustomed bind for a Republican nominee.

“Where he has succeeded in differentiating himself,” Preble said, “he’s taken positions that are less popular.”

One of Romney's most strident critiques of Obama has been that he has tried to end unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan too soon, against the advice of generals.

“I could be wrong, and we could be seeing a new poll and people are now totally convinced, ‘Wow we were wrong about Iraq. We should have stayed,” Preble said. “That would be quite remarkable.”

But Feith believes that Romney’s newly articulated message will carry the day.

“The realist perspective does not resonate in popular politics because it is very cold-blooded. It doesn’t move people, and when it’s implemented it tends to be embarrassing," Feith said. "I think that much of Obama’s policy is realist, partly because he wanted to swing the pendulum as far away from George W. Bush as far as possible. … So Bush’s emphasis on ideas, and the freedom agenda, and democratization, and all the rest of it—Obama wanted to throw out wholesale. I think that’s part of the reason why, especially the first year or two, he was literally bowing to the Chinese and the Saudis.”

“It is not the kind of thing that you necessarily want to run for president on,” Feith added. “Because the American people like to think of themselves as having principles.”