WHEREVER ONE looks these days, crises, conflicts and chaos seem to rule. From Tripoli to Tokyo, from Kiev to Caracas, the pace of violence appears to be accelerating. “Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence,” the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, testified earlier this year, “I have not experienced a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe. My list is long.” How ironic, then, that national-security issues should dominate the headlines during President Obama’s second term, given how little time was devoted to a serious or sustained discussion of these subjects during the 2012 presidential race.
I advised Governor Mitt Romney on national-security issues beginning in 2005, traveling with him to Asia, the Middle East and Europe, drafting policy memos and organizing briefings during both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Naturally, I thought that foreign policy should have been far more prominently discussed during the 2012 race, and knew that Romney had a genuine interest in these issues—he had read widely, met with numerous foreign leaders, and acquired a sophisticated understanding of international trade and financial markets. I also thought, as did all of the other foreign-policy experts on the campaign, that Obama was vulnerable to criticism of his conduct of American foreign policy.
There was no shortage of policies to criticize. Obama entered office with an ambitious agenda to negotiate a climate-change treaty, accelerate the Middle East peace process, reach out to the mullahs in Iran and our other adversaries, embrace global nuclear zero and “reset” relations with Russia; he ran aground on all counts. He distanced himself from our traditional allies, dramatically cut defense spending, and failed to promote trade agreements that would generate jobs and create prosperity. He failed to recognize and seize the historic potential of the Arab Spring and, more generally, failed to speak out forcefully for human rights and individual freedom at a time when many people around the world were yearning for America’s support. He placed an inordinate faith in international institutions to maintain world order; he placed far less faith in America as an exceptional country that can and should shape world events.
SO WHY did my candidate, with one large exception, tend to downplay foreign policy on the campaign trail? And what lessons does this treatment of foreign policy in the 2012 campaign hold for the GOP and for the Republican nominee in 2016?
Needless to say, campaigns are not run by foreign-policy experts; they are run by political professionals. The Romney political brain trust made four early assumptions that shaped the rhythm, contours and focus of the campaign.
First, they reasoned correctly that Obama was most vulnerable on the economy. The country was slow to recover from the 2008 recession, homes were being foreclosed and unemployment remained stubbornly high. Any day not criticizing the president over the economy, they believed, was a day wasted. And economic success was Romney’s sweet spot. His track record of growing companies and creating jobs in the private sector gave him credibility on this subject that the president could not match.
Second, eight years of President George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cast a long shadow. Many members of the Romney foreign-policy team were veterans of the George W. Bush years, and we worried that the Obama campaign would try to spin any foreign-policy position or pronouncement as a warmed-over version of “failed” Bush policies. Or worse, that the Obama team would portray the Romney campaign as having been infiltrated by unrepentant “neocons” eager to launch new wars around the world. (Sadly, the media often abetted this effort; many journalists indiscriminately used the term “neocon” without understanding what it meant.) Any mention of foreign policy, especially as it related to the Middle East, always risked diverting attention from a sober discussion of the administration’s shortcomings and forcing the Romney campaign to relitigate the Iraq War.
Third, the residue of these two wars, coupled with the lingering effects of the recession, produced an electorate that did not care very much about foreign policy; in fact, polls showed that the American people were “fatigued” from these conflicts and preferred to focus on domestic issues or, in the president’s words, “nation building here at home.”
Fourth, at times during 2011 and 2012, it seemed as if the foreign-policy differences within the Republican Party were larger than our differences with the Democrats. The challenge for the Romney campaign’s stewards was to assemble as big a “tent” as possible, bridging the divide from libertarians who wanted a more restrained U.S. role in the world to internationalists who wanted a more active leadership role, and including social conservatives, business conservatives, evangelicals, free traders and Tea Partiers. Too much specificity could risk driving away key voters in the battleground states.