x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Romney's foreign policy: Bush 2.0?

Seventeen of Mitt Romney's top 24 foreign policy advisers served in the Bush administration, which has promoted concern that the US might return to a more aggressive approach abroad if he wins the presidency.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney talks to his senior advisers while on his campaign plane en route to Denver, Colorado earlier this month.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney talks to his senior advisers while on his campaign plane en route to Denver, Colorado earlier this month.

WASHINGTON // Mitt Romney likes to invoke Ronald Reagan as his presidential role model.

But Mr Romney's coterie of neoconservative foreign policy advisers seems to suggest that he is following instead in the footsteps of George W Bush.

Seventeen of Mr Romney's top 24 foreign policy advisers, according to his campaign website, served in the Bush administration.

That has set alarm bells ringing in some quarters wary of a return to a doctrine of pre-emptive war and a more aggressive foreign policy posture, particularly in the highly volatile Middle East. It is a charge Mr Romney will likely have to answer when he and Barack Obama, the US president, go head-to-head again in their third and final presidential debate in Florida on Monday, which will focus on foreign policy.

Mr Romney has made US Middle East policy the centrepiece of his criticism of the US administration during the election campaign. The US under Mr Obama, he claims, has failed to show leadership and seen its standing in the world and the region weakened as a result.

But he has been consistently vague when presenting alternative policies.

His running mate, Paul Ryan, was notably stuck for a response when Joe Biden, the US vice president, challenged him during their debate last week to say whether a Romney administration would go to war with Iran, and if not, what difference there actually was between the two tickets.

Roby Barrett, a Gulf Security Expert with the Middle East Institute, said the advisers Mr Romney has chosen to surround himself would suggest that a return to a Bush era foreign policy is likely should the Republican win in November.

His advisers include Cofer Black, head of counter intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency at the time of the attacks on September 11, 2001, Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq after the invasion in 2003, and Michael Hayden, a former head of the National Security Agency.

Among those not in the former administration, meanwhile, but still in the neoconservative fold is Walid Phares, a terrorism expert at the National Defence University in Washington DC. Mr Phares was a member of a coalition of Christian parties during Lebanon's civil war.

Many in the group were instrumental in preparing the invasion of Iraq, said Mr Barrett, propelled by an ideology that represented the "worst of the American progressive tradition".

"You have Teddy Roosevelt's 'big stick' without his sophistication, and Woodrow Wilson's naive faith in democracy without his pragmatism. And it has flat failed."

The danger, said Mr Barrett, is that there will be a "greater tendency" toward pre-emptive war with Iran at a time when the region is in turmoil.

Others, however, reject that neoconservatism is making a comeback.

There are "lots of listed Romney advisers", said Christian Whiton, a political consultant with DC International Advisory. And there are even more "informal" ones.

"The key question is which ones plausibly might go into a Romney administration, which will tell us how he will govern."

Mr Whiton, who himself served in the Bush administration as a special adviser at the State Department, said pre-emptive war was not on the table.

"Romney has not said he would definitely strike Iran, but even if he did, it would be far from the pre-emptive actions of the last decade," Mr Whiton said in an emailed response.

More broadly, Mr Romney will also have to contend with political constraints at home and a reality in the region where US influence has been on the wane for a while, said Marwan Muasher, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan and a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

On Syria and Iran, the US has "few options". Mr Muasher said.

"There is no appetite in the US for any kind of military intervention in Syria, so on the ground there will be no difference. The same is true in Iran."

More broadly, he said, a failure to pressure Israel on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process over the past decade has undermined America's political credibility in the region.

With the war in Iraq showing up America's military limits, and US economic power weakened by the global financial crisis, there are "limits" to what the US can now do, Mr Muasher said, no matter the campaign rhetoric or who is in power.

"The days when the US could dictate outcomes in the Middle East are over."