President Obama just lost Egypt to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Arizona Sen. John McCain wants American in a war with Syria. Clearly there is room for a Reagan “peace through strength” alternative to these unappealing and feckless policies. Luckily, Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney has begun to articulate one. But the key question is whether Romney has the team to pull it off if elected.
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News on June 19 Romney got the Syrian civil war, Iran and the broader Middle East exactly right. He said: “The president ought to be working very aggressively to encourage our friends there—the Turks and the Saudis—to be providing the elements that the insurgents need in Syria to provide freedom to the people there. There is an extraordinarily high priority and opportunity for us to push back against the plans of Iran to become the hegemon of the region…”
This was key.
Romney looks to be framing his mind toward a Reagan-like policy that is stingy with overt military force and the lives of American soldiers, while having the cognizance and moral courage to wage political warfare on America’s adversaries.
Six days earlier, Rich Williamson, a top Romney foreign policy aide, clearly separated Romney from the Washington voices often regarded as keepers of the alternative to President Obama’s foreign policy. Williamson rejected the idea of sending Americans to war in Syria via another “no-fly zone,” telling an interviewer: “Senators Graham, Lieberman, McCain and others are calling for steps like that. Governor Romney has been very judicious and careful, very prudent and not taking that step… Right now we should be… arming the moderates among the opposition…”
This is an appealing alternative to Obama foreign policy, which has been marred by incoherence and the liberal tendency to apologize for America while acting only through the UN. That mixture just handed the Muslim Brotherhood a razor-thin victory in Egypt that would not have occurred had the Obama administration not blown kisses at the Muslim Brotherhood and failed to channel support to reformers.
But just as important is the distance these statements put between Romney and the neo-conservative views of John McCain and his traveling cabaret of shadow secretaries of state and defense. They have but one solution for all problems in the Middle East: war. While McCain presents these as less alarming “no-fly zones,” voters understand that sustained bombing of a country and close-air support of ground forces amounts to war—which they do not want.
Voters’ dislike of these open-ended, sideshow commitments reflects the principle described by John Quincy Adams: “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Instead, presidents customarily commit US forces to war only when vital interests are on the line. They keep their powder dry for the major threats of the day. In Reagan’s time that meant arming proxies in places like Afghanistan and Nicaragua, but also pulling our Marines from an untenable position in Lebanon and not bogging down the military in sideshows.
Reagan’s main focus was configuring the military to deter the Soviet Union while waging political warfare on that regime. That was the essence of “peace through strength.” Today, this would mean rebuilding our Navy and Air Force to deter China and reciprocating the political warfare being waged on us by China, Iran, Russia and violent Islamists.
If one accepts the contention that Romney is channeling Reagan, the question then becomes whether Romney can turn his policies into reality.
In Washington, personnel is policy. The president sets policy, but its implementation—the thousands of decisions that are made deep in the bowels of bureaucrat-filled government agencies—falls to his cabinet and lesser officials.
Some of us who were political appointees in the administration of President George W. Bush learned this the hard way. At times, especially below the cabinet level where operational decisions are made, it seemed like Bush’s influence ended at the White House’s gates—failing to permeate the State Department, Pentagon, CIA and other agencies. This was the toll of poor personnel selection.
This is also why some of us were drawn to Newt Gingrich in the GOP primary. Newt knew from America’s recent and distant past that historic change requires upending the federal bureaucracy. One cannot revive a traditional, Reagan-like foreign policy without taking this step. One should also avoid establishment mavens like Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and their proteges, since they already demonstrated a lack of will and capacity to do what Romney now proposes.
How would a President Romney fare? The jury is out, and Team Romney has the ingredients for both success and failure.
Among the long list of insiders who are, or imply they are, on Romney’s hit parade, there is diversity of ideology and willingness to confront the Washington establishment.
On the good side, there are people like John Lehman, who was Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, and a key force in building Reagan’s 600-ship Navy. Lehman could probably conduct the deadwood-removal our national security agencies desperately need.
On the bad side, there are figures like Bob Zoellick, who as deputy secretary of State sought to appease Beijing. In 2005, the liberal Daily Beast fawned over his “moderate and nuanced views on China” and complimented his defense of China’s trade posture. Joining him are other former political appointees who were indistinguishable from the bureaucrats they were sent to manage during their turn under Bush.
Romney’s words offer hope, but more important than words will be the people he chooses to staff his administration, were he to win. A system for recruiting those who are not a part of the Washington establishment is crucial. Finding them and backing them up is the difference between a Bush and a Reagan.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).