Anyone Home?

Romney’s Foreign-Policy Team: Anyone Home?

Insiders say advisers are sidelined, scrambling to be heard in a campaign that seems solely focused on bashing Obama’s economic record. Eli Lake reports.

Mark Makela / Corbis

At the Romney 2012 campaign, there’s a well-known mantra that drives much of the candidate's strategy: Every day Romney talks about something besides the economy is a victory for President Obama.

That maxim has left many of the foreign-policy wonks participating in the campaign feeling sidelined, and vying—often unsuccessfully—to make particular policy points that the candidate can take on the road, according to several people involved in the campaign. “They’re constantly sending emails and policy ideas around,” says one adviser, “but they are rarely doing anything more than pushing paper."

On a recent conference call between the chairs of Romney’s 10 committees dedicated to foreign policy, one participant urged the campaign to address a June 19 item from the Iranian state news agency, Fars, claiming the Syrian, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian militaries would be staging joint amphibious exercises in the coming weeks. “It was so lame,” said one person on the call, adding that such conversations often devolve into debates that have no influence on the actual campaign. “These conference calls are really for people who have an hour in a half of time every week to waste.”

Compounding the problem, say people involved in the campaign, is the lack of a senior foreign-policy staffer—someone to shape the message and respond to the media when global news breaks. Richard Grenell, a former spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, was appointed foreign-policy spokesman in May but left two weeks later, after reportedly being told he couldn’t speak to the media. Both the Romney campaign and Grenell declined to comment on his role. In contrast, in 2008, both Senator McCain and President Obama had a senior foreign policy adviser on the campaign staff. Romney instead relies on a small group of advisers who have known him from his first presidential run in 2008. This model is much closer to the group of so-called Vulcans who tutored President George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000.

The candidate himself has given sporadic clues to what a President Romney foreign policy would look like. During his first run for the White House, he avoided the major issue of that campaign season, the war in Iraq. He never came out against the troop surge of 2007 and 2008, but he also studiously avoided talking much about it. His major speech of 2007, delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, called for an ambitious Marshall Plan for the Middle East. In 2010, Romney gave more specifics on his world view in his book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. In that book, he identified what he saw as the three major threats to the U.S.: the rise of China’s military; the expansion of Russian influence in the former Soviet republics; and the global jihadist movement. In October 2011, Romney gave what is still the campaign’s only big foreign policy speech, in which he promised to increase spending for the Navy, coordinate diplomacy in the Middle East under one senior diplomat, and restore missile defense spending cut by Obama.

But since that speech, Romney has mainly stuck to attacking Obama’s record on the economy, branching out at times to blast the president’s outreach to Russia, known as the “reset” policy, and his handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship. A major foreign policy speech that was initially planned for May or June, according to campaign advisers, has not yet materialized. Romney’s relative quiet on the foreign-policy front has fueled criticism that he lacks a clear vision.

“One of the things that troubles me is that there is no lead foreign policy person who is traveling with the governor and who is there to talk to the press,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. She says foreign policy “is one of President Obama’s biggest failings and the American people need to hear a debate about more than the economy.”

Alex Wong, Romney’s foreign and legal policy adviser, declined to discuss details about who is involved in foreign-policy discussions or about particular conversations. He said, “there is no foreign-policy guru on this campaign. We have a series of advisers, those are the advisers we talk to, and we’ve named them. Governer Romney evaluates their advice and ultimately makes his own decisions on policy.”

Campaign insiders say Romney’s inner circle of advisers includes Vin Weber, a former Republican Congressman from Minnesota; Jim Talent, a former Republican senator from Missouri; Dan Senor, a former spokesman and adviser to the coalition provisional authority in Iraq; Mitchell Reiss, who served as director of policy planning for the State Department; and Rich Williamson, a former U.S. ambassador who has served under President Reagan and both of the Bush presidents. All of these people—with the exception of Williamson—were with Romney for the 2008 campaign. Senor, Talent, and Reiss were thanked by Romney in the acknowledgments of his book for helping shape the chapters on foreign policy.

This group holds a weekly conference call with Wong to plot out broader themes for the campaign and evaluate world news, but they don’t handle day-to-day campaigning. That task falls to Wong, who schedules conference calls, sends out emails and distills foreign policy advice into brief summaries for Romney. Some Romney advisers say Wong, a 32-year-old Harvard Law School graduate, has no practical foreign-policy experience beyond a 2005 summer internship at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. In contrast, John McCain had Randy Scheunemann, a former national security adviser to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, performing this job during the 2008 race. And on the Obama 2008 campaign, it was Denis McDonnough, who had been a senior foreign policy adviser for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Some staffers say the campaign is in desperate need of someone with the stature and gravitas to force Romney to listen. They point to his statement in a CNN interview that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe”, which drew fire from the press. “I think Romney is right to make Russia an issue,” one adviser said. “But when he said that, the campaign should have walked it back and moved on.”

Others say Wong is smart, and has an aptitude for understanding foreign policy. Jack Goldsmith, a professor of Wong’s at Harvard Law School and a former senior Justice Department official under George W. Bush, said, “I remember Alex as a nice guy and a very smart student.”

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Wong declined to discuss his own qualifications for the job or the criticism that he is inexperienced. He said the candidate’s Russia remark was a legitimate criticism of Obama’s approach to Moscow. Wong said that in the same CNN interview, the governor also said an Iran pursuing nuclear weapons was the greatest threat to the U.S. "I thought it was quite ironic that the Obama campaign thought [the Russia] remarks were an opening for them," said Wong. "Russia is a unique geopolitical challenge, it holds a veto at the U.N. Security Council, it has a nuclear arsenal, it holds vast energy reserves, it has a government that is backsliding into authoritarianism, and it has shown a penchant for protecting some of the world’s worst actors at the U.N."

Of course, the views of advisers aren’t necessarily the best indicators of what a candidate’s policies will be if he ends up in the Oval Office. George W. Bush’s top foreign policy adviser told the Republican convention in 2000 that Bush would eschew “nation-building” projects. After the attacks of September 11, Bush embarked on grand nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2008 Obama campaign frequently criticized what they described as an overreach of Bush’s executive branch authority in the global war on terror. As president though, Obama was criticized for his decision to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who had become an al Qaeda leader.

In an interview, Grenell said Romney was fully capable of understanding and reacting to world affairs. “Governor Romney has international experience and a well-thought out world view,” said Grenell. “It’s not important who has access to Romney, it’s important who Romney has access to—and that list is long.”

Those experts, for now at least, are waiting to be of use. "I've stopped participating in the calls and I rarely read the emails," said one adviser involved in foreign-policy discussions. He said he’d change his mind if there was a real crisis, but until that happens, "I have better things to do."