Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Is Mitt Romney Flip-Flopping On the Iraq War?

Mitt Romney keeps getting more interesting. It's no secret that he's been steadily flipping and flopping his way to the Republican presidential nomination. Abortion? He was for it before he was against it.  Global warming? Ditto. But underneath he's always conveyed the impression, even as he contorts himself into conservative positions, or what passes for them, that he knows better.

The latest instance, as Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, is the Iraq War. Romney now indicates that he doesn't think it was a good idea. Had George W. Bush known that weapons of mass destruction were not in Iraq, he told NBC's Chuck Todd, America would have acted differently:

If we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction, if somehow we had been given that information, obviously we would not have gone in.

No, no, no. This is not the standard GOP talking point. The standard point is what Romney himself said earlier—four years ago, to be precise:

It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now.

What Romney's latest statement assumes, of course, is rationality on the part of vice president Dick Cheney when it came to Iraq. That's a mighty big assumption. And its further testament to Romney's own common sense. But weapons of mass destruction, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz put it, was never more than a policy that everyone could agree on—it was the fig leaf to justify the invasion. Iraq was supposed to be a demonstration shot, a Jacksonian "don't tread on me" moment. And it was supposed to launch a wave of democratization in the Arab world—even as Iraq now appears to be succumbing to its fissiparous ethnic tensions. But never mind.

The good news is that Romney clearly has a lot of trouble staying on message when spouting the neocon line about foreign policy. One problem may be that, at bottom, he doesn't really believe it. Romney has always been steeped in moderation. In his new book Rule and Ruin, the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice points out that George Romney almost landed the GOP nomination in 1968 and would have taken the party in a very different direction than that followed by the neocons and the movement conservatives. Mitt is surely running in part to redeem his father's failed quest. Perhaps this is also explains why he hasn't truly imbibed the neocon gospel on foreign affairs. Chait concludes,

Nothing about Romney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the right hint even slightly of genuine conversion. It is patronizing appeasement.

Indeed it is. Consider Romney's performances at the GOP debates. It's difficult to shake the feeling that he has palpable contempt for the other candidates, whom he regards as a bunch of noodles. I've never been able to conclude anything other than that he feels like he's soiling himself even to appear on the same stage with the likes of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Romney is far more intelligent and has greater accomplishments than any of them. Romney's arrogance also came through during his controversial interview with Brett Baier of Fox News, who pummeled him with questions a few weeks ago.

Of course Romney's self-confidence pales next to the voluble Newt Gingrich, who leaves you with the feeling that if no one else is around he probably lectures to the mirror in the room. But Romney's confidence is rooted in his own record of success. Gingrich sends up a cloud of verbal obfuscation to disguise his own shallowness. As the campaign progresses, it will be fascinating to observe Romney's evolution. How long will it take before he sheds his current conservative incarnation, which hasn't really persuaded anyone, and returns to his moderate views?

Image: Lexicon, Vikrum