Romney Strives to Stand Apart in Global Policy

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WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney intensified his efforts Monday to draw a sharp contrast with President Obama on national security in the presidential campaign's closing stages, portraying Mr. Obama as having mishandled the tumult in the Arab world and having left the nation exposed to a terrorist attack in Libya.

In a speech he gave at the Virginia Military Institute, Mr. Romney declared that "hope is not a strategy" for dealing with the rise of Islamist governments in the Middle East or an Iran racing toward the capability to build a nuclear weapon, according to excerpts released by his campaign.

The essence of Mr. Romney's argument is that he would take the United States back to an earlier era, one that would result, as his young foreign policy director, Alex Wong, told reporters on Sunday, in "the restoration of a strategy that served us well for 70 years."

But beyond his critique of Mr. Obama as failing to project American strength abroad, Mr. Romney has yet to fill in many of the details of how he would conduct policy toward the rest of the world, or to resolve deep ideological rifts within the Republican Party and his own foreign policy team. It is a disparate and politely fractious team of advisers that includes warring tribes of neoconservatives, traditional strong-defense conservatives and a band of self-described "realists" who believe there are limits to the degree the United States can impose its will.

Each group is vying to shape Mr. Romney's views, usually through policy papers that many of the advisers wonder if he is reading. Indeed, in a campaign that has been so intensely focused on economic issues, some of these advisers, in interviews over the past two weeks in which most insisted on anonymity, say they have engaged with him so little on issues of national security that they are uncertain what camp he would fall into, and are uncertain themselves about how he would govern.

"Would he take the lead in bombing Iran if the mullahs were getting too close to a bomb, or just back up the Israelis?" one of his senior advisers asked last week. "Would he push for peace with the Palestinians, or just live with the status quo? He's left himself a lot of wiggle room."

In his remarks, Mr. Romney addressed the Palestinian issue, saying, "I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel." And he faulted Mr. Obama for failing to deliver on that front.

But while the theme Mr. Romney hit the hardest in his speech at V.M.I. -- that the Obama era has been one marked by "weakness" and the abandonment of allies -- has political appeal, the specific descriptions of what Mr. Romney would do, on issues like drawing red lines for Iran's nuclear program and threatening to cut off military aid to difficult allies like Pakistan or Egypt if they veer away from American interests, sound at times quite close to Mr. Obama's approach.

And the speech appeared to glide past positions Mr. Romney himself took more than a year ago, when he voiced opposition to expanding the intervention in Libya to hunt down Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi with what he termed insufficient resources. He called it "mission creep and mission muddle," though within months Mr. Qaddafi was gone. And last spring, Mr. Romney was caught on tape telling donors he believed there was "just no way" a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could work.

Mr. Romney's Monday speech called vaguely for support of Libya's "efforts to forge a lasting government" and to pursue the "terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans." And he said he would "recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security" with Israel. But he did not say what resources he would devote to those tasks.

The shifts, a half dozen of Mr. Romney's advisers said in interviews, partly reflect the fact that the candidate himself has not deeply engaged in these issues for most of the campaign, certainly not with the enthusiasm, and instincts, he has on domestic economic issues. But they also represent continuing divisions.

Some are on the way to resolution. Over the summer, an "inner circle" of foreign policy advisers emerged, with Richard S. Williamson, a former Reagan administration official who briefly returned to government to serve President George W. Bush, playing a leading role. Another central player is Mitchell B. Reiss, the president of Washington College in Maryland and a veteran of Mr. Romney's 2008 campaign. And Jim Talent, the former Missouri senator, has taken a major role in defense strategy.

Liz Cheney, who served in the State Department during the Bush administration and is the daughter of Mr. Bush's vice president, has begun to join a weekly conference call that sporadically includes Dan Senor, who served as spokesman for the American occupation government in Iraq. Since the Republican National Convention, Mr. Senor has been assigned to the staff of Mr. Romney's running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, who in recent weeks has made Mr. Obama's foreign policy a particular target.

The foreign policy group is overseen by Kerry Healey, who served as lieutenant governor under Mr. Romney in Massachusetts. Missing from the calls are some of the better-known veterans of the Republican foreign policy wars that played out during the Bush administration and went into abeyance until the players reconvened in Mr. Romney's campaign.

The faction around John R. Bolton -- the neoconservative former ambassador to the United Nations, who has made clear his distaste for working through international organizations -- expressed its deep unhappiness when Robert Zoellick was appointed as a strategist for the national security transition team. Mr. Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank, who also served in the Bush administration, comes from the internationalist wing of the party; Mr. Bolton's allies deride him as moderate to a fault.

Those disputes have been shelved, at least until Nov. 7, advisers say. " 'After the election,' that's what they say in all the conference calls," one member of the team said after trying, unsuccessfully, to argue for more specificity in one of Mr. Romney's recent statements on the Middle East. He added, "They see little benefit in resuming the battles that preoccupied the Bush White House, at least for the next month."

Two of Mr. Romney's advisers said he did not seem to have the strong instincts that he has on economic issues; he resonates best, one said, to the concept of "projecting strength" and "restoring global economic growth." But he has appeared unconcerned about the widely differing views within his own campaign about whether spreading American-style freedoms in the Middle East or simply managing, and limiting, the rise of Islamist governments should be a major goal.

And that has led to some embarrassing confusion. Mr. Williamson said in an interview two weeks ago that Mr. Romney favored arming the Syrian rebels, then called back to say that, in fact, Mr. Romney favored having Arab neighbors arm them, a position fairly close to Mr. Obama's. In the speech he is to give on Monday, Mr. Romney calls for organizing "members of the opposition who share our values" and ensuring "they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters and fighter jets." But he stops short of saying he would provide them himself.

In a television interview two weeks ago, Mr. Romney seemed to forget his position that he would halt Iran from getting a nuclear "capability" -- something it would reach long before it had a weapon -- and sounded like he was in agreement with the president that he would simply stop Iran from gaining a weapon.

In the V.M.I. speech, he returned to the promise to "prevent them from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." But he discussed primarily "new sanctions on Iran," at a moment when Mr. Obama has imposed what Republicans from the Bush administration agree are the most severe sanctions in history, and combined them with cyberattacks on Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

Missing from the team are the big names in establishment Republican foreign policy circles. The best known of them, Henry A. Kissinger, has endorsed Mr. Romney, but recently took a shot at his declaration that he would declare China a currency manipulator on the "first day" of a new administration. Last week, Mr. Kissinger described both presidential candidates' approach to China as "extremely deplorable."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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