David Sanger of the New York Times published an article over the weekend that must be causing some serious strife within the Romney campaign, as more than a half dozen of the candidate’s foreign policy advisers spoke anonymously about his complete lack of coherent ideas on that subject. Speaking about Romney’s declaration that he would never negotiate with the Taliban, a position considered absurd and dangerous by all of his advisers, the article says:
It was just one example of what Mr. Romney’s advisers call a perplexing pattern: Dozens of subtle position papers flow through the candidate’s policy shop and yet seem to have little influence on Mr. Romney’s hawkish-sounding pronouncements, on everything from war to nuclear proliferation to the trade-offs in dealing with China. In the Afghanistan case, “none of us could quite figure out what he was advocating,” one of Mr. Romney’s advisers said. He insisted on anonymity — as did a half-dozen others interviewed over the past two weeks — because the Romney campaign has banned any discussion of the process by which the candidate formulates his positions.
“It begged the obvious question,” the adviser added. “Do we stay another decade? How many forces, and how long, does that take? Do we really want to go into the general election telling Americans that we should stay a few more years to eradicate the whole Taliban movement?” In phase one of a long presidential campaign, Mr. Romney could duck those questions: the spotlight moved to the wisdom of the economic stimulus and the auto-industry bailout, contraception and, now, same-sex marriage and high school bullying.
But in the long stretch before the Republican convention in August, the battle for Mr. Romney’s mind on the key foreign policy questions that have defined the past few decades will have to be joined: When is a threat to America so urgent that the United States should intervene unilaterally? Is it worth the cost and casualties to rebuild broken societies? Should America feel it must always be in the lead — as Mr. Romney seems to argue — or let other powers play that role when their interests are more directly affected?
On these questions, Mr. Romney’s own advisers, judging by their public writing and comments, possess widely differing views — often a result of the scar tissue they developed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Bush-era experiments in the exercise of American power.
This is what happens when you flail around trying to find a position that distinguishes you from your primary rivals and your general election opponent, without having anything remotely like a coherent approach to the subject. But the fact that his advisers are now leaking their concerns to the press is a pretty big deal, as Michael Crowley points out:
Substantively, it’ll be mighty interesting to see how Romney handles this question when it comes up next: Will he backpedal or double down on his politically sulphuric view. But almost as interesting is the broader implication of Sanger’s piece, which is that Romney is surrounded by foreign policy experts frustrated enough with him to feed the Times a negative story, to the point of implying that Romney doesn’t thoroughly understand or possibly even even care much about foreign affairs. (“Romney doesn’t want to really engage these issues until he is in office,” one adviser confides to Sanger.) From my read of Sanger’s piece, Romney advisers seem to have qualms about his rhetoric on countries ranging from Iran to China to Russia. (Sanger notes pointedly–and, I assume, based on a sour whisper from the advisory circle–that Romney wrote a 2010 op-ed piece opposing Obama’s new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia “without much input from his staff.”)
So much for internal discipline. One chatty adviser confesses to Sanger that he would be “cashiered” from the campaign for speaking so freely, and understandably so. Fehrnstrom must be on the warpath. To be fair, campaigns can have dozens, even hundreds of “advisers,” and it’s not clear from Sanger’s story whether the dissidents are inner-sanctum types or outer-orbit people who submit a memo to some regional working group every now and then. Regardless, this kind of chatter is embarrassing for the campaign. It’s also chum in the water for the national media, which has been reminded of Romney’s inexperience in world affairs–something he’s been relatively unchallenged on thus far–and which is sure to start drilling deeper on that subject soon. Asking Romney to explain his plan to “defeat” the Taliban would be a fine place to start.
Time to shake the etch-a-sketch again.