[Audio] Experts Discuss Whether Romney’s Foreign Policy Pitch Costs Him Credibility and Popularity

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[Audio] Experts Discuss Whether Romney’s Foreign Policy Pitch Costs Him Credibility and Popularity

Today, senior military, security and political experts previewed Mitt Romney’s positions on foreign policy ahead of his Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) appearance. National Security Network’s Major General Paul Eaton, USA (Ret), Georgetown University and Council on Foreign Relations’ Charles Kupchan and Duke University’s Bruce Jentleson, PhD discussed how Romney’s national security priorities stack up against reality, the economy and the views of policy experts on what will make America safe and prosperous.

Download the audio here.

Read the transcript here.

Highlights from the call include:

  • Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton warned that the current conservative mindset, exemplified in Mitt Romney, is “a throwback to a Cold War mentality that [the military] find[s] frankly dangerous.” He said President Obama’s use of the full diplomatic, economic and military tools demonstrates “a very solid understanding” of national power. In contrast, Romney’s extreme deference to “the generals” and his rudderless military spending are “disappointing” and “inappropriate.”
  • Charles Kupchan saw a “troubling” contrast: President Obama has “recast how we allocate our resources to pursue our ends and Romney simply seems to be stuck in the past and saying more of same, more of same. Again, seemingly denying that the world around us is in the midst of change.” He added that “one of the main strengths that Obama has is that he sees the need to restore the fortunes of the middle class, he sees the need to rebuild a bipartisan and centrist consensus on national security – this is a fundamental starting ground for re-firming the foundations of American foreign policy and from my perspective, Romney seems to be doing exactly the opposite.”
  • Bruce Jentleson said that Romney appears unserious and unstudied on foreign policy (even on his own advisors’ positions) Instead, he is playing the “un-cola” on issues ranging from terrorism to Latin American trade to Asian alliances and doing a “full-monty pander” on Israel and Iran. The resulting approach is not good policy or necessarily good politics: in an attempt to ingratiate himself with neoconservatives, he shows himself to be “more about bluster than strategy.”


For this and more on the contrasting views on of defense spending, Afghanistan, Iraq, “appeasement,” the pivot to Asia, the Russian “reset,” the Arab uprisings, the size of our military, the role of foreign policy in 2012 politics and the return of neoconservative, listen here or read the transcript.


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Sara DuBois: Hello this is Sara Dubois. I am the communications director at National Security Network. Thank you so much for joining us today for this call to preview and review Mitt Romney’s foreign policy and his pitch to conservatives ahead of his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference tomorrow. Joining us today on the line are three esteemed speakers. We will start with Charlie Kupchan who is the Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and he is also a former National Security Council Director of European Affairs and current Georgetown professor of international relations. After that, we will hear from Major General Paul Eaton, who is a retired 30 year army veteran who led the training of the Iraqi army from 2003-2004 and is currently the senior advisor at the National Security Network, followed by Bruce Jentleson, who is a Duke University professor of public policy and political science and a former senior advisor to the State Department’s [Department] of Policy Planning, and congrats to his own Duke who beat UNC in the game last night. So with that, I will hand it over to Charlie Kupchan. Thanks.

Charles Kupchan: Thanks Sara, and welcome to everyone this morning. I am going to make four broad points about the debate that’s emerging between president Obama and Governor Romney and try to underscore some of the key differences in approach and in perspective.

The first is that to the degree that there’s a dominant narrative or dominant refrain in the campaign, it’s about American power and Romney seems to be hitting one particular core and that is this is still an American century, American exceptionalism, and Obama is a pessimist and he’s a declinist and it seems to me that, that that is really side stepping the fundamental issue before us and that other than discreet foreign policy problems like how to deal with Iran and the continuing struggle against terrorism.

It seems to me perhaps the six million dollar question for American statecraft in the coming decade is how to deal with the changing world. How to deal with a world in which power is diffusing to new quarters, and the efforts by Romney to sidestep that seem to me to be, to kind of deny this change and to deny the American people what they deserve, which is a serious debate about managing global change, about making sure that the United States remains secure and prosperous even as we move into a world in which power is more equitably distributed.

And if you look at some of the things that Bob Kagan and other Romney advisors have written in the recent days and weeks they seem to be suggesting, “Well, it’s only Europe and Japan that are losing global share,” and the United States is staying at about 25 percent of global GDP and that’s true, and I think the U.S. will rebound from the current problems and maintain its place in the global pecking order, but to lose ground in Europe, to lose ground in Japan, to see a world in which China and India and Brazil and Indonesia and Turkey and others are enjoying considerable growth and more influence is just something we need to have a debate, the American people deserve a debate about that, and it’s simply not good enough to sort of say: “This will be an American century goodnight and good luck.”

The second point I’d make is on means and ends. I think that the United States has to some extent run afoul of a disequilibrium between means and ends over the last decade in the sense that we have more at stake in the Middle East and in Iraq, less so now in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, more than our interests warrant. And I think the Obama administration has done a very good job of trying to get that equilibrium back by limiting our exposure in Iraq and by moving expeditiously to downsize our footprint in Afghanistan. And at the same time, Romney is talking about staying put, he’s talking about increasing the military and military spending, and it seems to me that they ought to be not so much on spending, but what are we going to do with our forces? How do we rebuild our strength? And Obama has correctly, I think, suggested that we need to limit our exposure in Iraq and in Afghanistan, pivot toward East Asia, the most dynamic part of the world, and try to recast how we allocate our resources to pursue our ends. And Romney simply seems to be stuck in the past and saying, “more of same, more of same,” again, seemingly denying that the world around us is in the midst of change.

Third point, and perhaps most controversially, Romney will be going after Obama as the appeaser in chief. As someone who talks to enemies when we should be isolating and coercing enemies. And I think that there’s no question that reaching out to adversaries is difficult and it’s politically perilous, but the on balance, Obama’s strategy of talking across dividing lines has paid off. Is the relationship with Russia everything that we would like? No. But have the Russians worked with us on Afghanistan? Yes. Do we have a New START arms control treaty? Yes. Has Russian helped more than hurt on isolating Iran? Yes. Are we moving forward on a new relationship with Myanmar? Have they loosened the grip on power? Yes. Have we consolidated rapprochement with Cuba? No. But is there a slight, but important move in the right direction? Yeah, because the Cubans are gradually opening up starting to privatize, loosening the grip on power, letting political prisoners go. So, I think that Obama’s doing the right thing and it’s clear he’s doing it with eyes wide open, because when it comes to Iran, he keeps the doors to negotiations open, but is tightening the sanctions and keeps everything on the table, and it seems to me that that balance between engagement and containment makes much more sense than simply slamming the door shut on diplomacy and leaving ourselves without that option.

My final point is that I’m someone who believe that American diplomacy and grand strategy starts at home, and that when the country is thriving at home and enjoys a centrist bipartisan consensus we do well abroad, and when we are divided and facing income inequality and ideological divisions because of inequality, we tend to stumble abroad. And I think one of the main strengths that Obama has is that he sees the need to restore the fortunes of the middle class, he sees the need to rebuild a bipartisan and centrist consensus on foreign policy. This is a fundamental starting ground for reaffirming the foundations of American foreign policy and from my perspective Romney seems to be doing exactly the opposite, pursuing policies that don’t hold hope of restoring economic growth, that increase economic inequality, that neglect the plight of the middle class and the poor, and this kind of hallowing out of the American political center will over time weaken the domestic foundations of foreign policy.

Paul do you want to take it from there?

Major General Paul Eaton: Charlie thank you very much. Good morning everybody. From a general officer, flag officer perspective, we have, and in our education we develop an acute understanding of what vital national interests are for the United States and the components of national power. We come in and are given an introduction on the law [unclear] practitioners of the military art. We are going to embark upon considerable discussion on how the United States wages diplomacy, and how we use our economy to assure that we meet our vital national interests. The Obama administration and the president appear to have a very solid understanding as well, and what you don’t hear from them is “listen to the generals,” what you hear from them is a collaboration with the military to achieve our diplomatic and economic ends. So the president has a thorough grasp of this, and what you hear out of the GOP field that we find frankly disappointing: the military does not expect to hear senior political leadership, senior civilian leadership to be deferential in the extreme to the military. We don’t expect to hear, “Well listen to the generals” and “What do the generals think?” We expect collaboration on how to meet the nation’s vital national interests.

In the context of today, we see a, and Charlie picked up on this very well, we see a reshaping of what those vital national interests mean. We are closing up a counterinsurgency warfare that we embarked upon ten years ago in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are becoming more conscious of what we need to do to assure logistics, our lines of communication throughout the world, and we are shaping our military to meet that vision, that reassessment of what we as a country need to do to assure our future wellbeing.

We are focused on the economy. When you ask a military guy, “What are the top three threats to national security?” Almost all of, to the man and woman, state it’s the economy. We have got to have a thorough economic grounding from which to depart upon for diplomatic and military operations. So we understand that, and this administration understands it completely. So the military gets it and so does the Obama administration.

Unfortunately, the GOP and the GOP field, and Mr. Romney in particular, are over focused on the military aspect. They’re listening to the Heritage and the AEI speakers and they’re doing what we consider to be arbitrary thinking, and when you say four percent of GDP without any kind of construct, any kind of military planning to support that, there’s nothing underpinning a four percent GDP approach. The fact that the United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the GDP,  that we spend 50 percent of the world’s spending on our military, as Charlie pointed out, out of sync. So back to where we are with Iran, the approach to this, raising the troop count by 100,000, you have to ask “why are we doing this when the real issues are trade and the economy and engagement with the rest of the planet. So, from a perspective of divesting ourselves from the counterinsurgency mission and focusing on true vital national interests, the engagement we have seen this administration pursue globally is very important in the burden sharing that we need to consider when the entire planet is suffering from an economic malaise. So the Romney approach of focusing on the military to the neglect of economic and diplomatic collaboration is simply, from my perspective, an inappropriate approach.

Finally, military planners do the contingencies and sequels. Contingencies are “what if” and the sequel is the “what’s next?” What’s next, and the vision that the president has laid out is a world that is engaged diplomatically, economically, and militarily. A world that has nodes of influence and where those nodes are cobbled together with alliances to ensure that we meet our interests and we can collaborate with other national interests, and we’re well upon that path and we would like to see this completed in the future. So, thank you very much and Bruce over to you.

Bruce Jentleson: Thanks very much and thanks to Sara for the plug on Duke basketball, I may well have already antagonized some people on the other end who are UNC fans, but we’ll do what we can.

Let me just try to make a couple points and be quick so we can open up to your questions and answers. You know, starting with this notion of does foreign policy really matter is this election, obviously the economy is the most dominant issue, that’s sort of obvious and a given, but if you look at the polls, you know there are small numbers, let’s call it three to five percent that say they’re paying attention to foreign policy, and if it is in fact a close election, one has to assume that it can be, it may well be that that three to five percent really comes into play. So the notion that the economy is the most important issue is of course right, but it does not mean that foreign policy is not important. I think this question of Romney and President Obama is an extremely significant one.

Within that context, I think this is one of those elections, it’s not going to be, unless something happens between now and election day, it’s not going to be issue specific, it’s going to be more thematic about foreign policy. We’ve had elections that have been issue specific like you know, Iraq and 9/11 played into elections, but the thematic one is very much as Charlie said is this whole American exceptionalism, declinism sort of thing. I think that the huge contrast there, and it affects domestic policy as well, is that Romney and others on the Republican side are basically trying to use American exceptionalism as an anesthetic.

It’s understandable that Americans feel a lot of anxiety these days, economic as well as post-9/11 terrorism, the world is changing can be pretty scary and confusing, but I think that what President Obama has been speaking to is the notion really of taking pride in the ways which we have been great throughout our history in so many ways, but using this notion of American exceptionalism or just patriotic pride, if you will, as a stimulant and not an anesthetic, it’s something, you know, what it takes to compete in this global era economically and otherwise, and what it takes is people really sort of being rallied together and not being, not having their [unclear] by invoking sort of myths of the past. I think that will come out more.

The declinism thing, it’s really not about declinism. It’s really more about denialism. Foreign policy, like pretty much anything else in policy or life is if you don’t acknowledge you have problems you can’t deal with them. So the true declinists are Romney and the other denialists that don’t say there are issues that we have to deal with. So that’s kind of the broad thematic context. I think American exceptionalism really, you know, anesthetic versus stimulant.

Another difference that I think both my colleagues brought out, and generally it just is, this whole notion about power, and power really, you know in today’s world, is more about strategy than bluster. You know, it’s not about how much you spend on defense, but how you spend it. So the Romney response to President Obama’s defense strategy and budget is “Oh I’ll spend more money.” Not only does it have fiscal issues, but really, if you really are thinking how America can use our power and maximize it, it’s about how you spend it, what’s your strategy, not just talking about the amounts that you spend.

Similarly, what General Eaton said, how you deal with the advice you get from the military. I mean, this whole notion that Romney keeps saying about “listen to the generals” and he’s kind of tried to play it both ways.  The role of the commander-in-chief is to ensure that the military gives its best advice, but that the corps decisions, be it about Afghanistan or Iran or any other issue, are made by the president as commander-in-chief taking in advice from the military and others. In fact if Romney listened to his generals, including many Israeli generals on Iran, he would have a few more second thoughts about being so blustery about, you know, why military action is the way to go on that.

Using force is about strategy, it’s about latching together American military capabilities and American diplomacy. That’s what President George H.W. Bush did in the Persian Gulf War, it’s what President George W. Bush did not do, it’s what President Obama has done on Libya and others.

Just a couple last points. One, actually on the Middle East in particular, and the whole Israel issue where, you know, Romney in many forms including the Republican Jewish alliance or coalition, frankly in my view and I’ve worked on these issues a lot over the years, he’s basically doing a full monty pander. In the debate in South Carolina, he basically said in response to one of the questions that Israel is all right and the Palestinians are all wrong. We can have a serious discussion about which parts of Israeli strategy are right and wrong and Palestinian right and wrong, but he’s totally doing a pander on this, including his intimations on Iran, and frankly, that’s not exactly the message you want to send to any government, including the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu might be sitting there saying “Well thank you for your support and it tells me I can leverage you if you win this,” which is not the position you want to be in.

Overall I think on a lot of other issues you can ask about I think he’s been basically doing “the un-cola,” you know, if Obama is for it I’m against it, if Obama got bin Laden Romney gives him begrudging support but says “You know he hasn’t been doing enough on terrorism.” Obama pivots to Asia and in many ways getting strong positive responses from our Asian allies, continues to try to work the China relationship, and Romney says “Oh no, you know you have to be tougher on China, you’re not tough enough.” Obama opens up to Latin America, we have had differences with countries like Brazil, but we’re working on a lot of issues and somehow he accuses Obama of ignoring Latin America. I think most of his positions are, you know, coming from trying to pander to the neoconservatives and simply trying to do “the un-cola,” and I don’t think that there aren’t some serious issues to debate, and I don’t think that contributes to it.

In essence, why don’t we go ahead and open up for the question and answer and I understand from the two Saras you’ll direct your questions to whichever one of us you want to respond.

Question: Hi gentlemen, thanks for taking the time to do the call today. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the Romney foreign policy advisory team. How much influence do you think they’re having on what the foreign policy words are actually coming out of Romney’s mouth and what does the team tell you about, sort of, how Romney’s foreign policy frame is getting said here.

Bruce Jentleson: It’s Bruce, I’ll take a shot at it then pass it on. I think he clearly stacked it with a lot of Bush W. era neoconservatives, which I think reflects a couple things. I think it reflects a sense that he sees the world as it was, and maybe how he’d like it to be much more than like it is. This is a group who I think is much more on power is about bluster than strategy. At the same time he seems to not have read some of the work by some of the people on his team, you know, he talks about not talking to enemies and some of them at least kind of address that issue. So, to me it fits his whole “uncola” image. He really didn’t spend the out-years doing any serious foreign policy work if you think about it, whereas other candidates who have run a second time have done that. There’s no real record that he built or study groups or significant travel. I think he simply thinks he can play the “I’m tough” card at a time in which, I think that’s both wrong policy and I’m not convinced it works politically.

Charlie Kupchan: Yeah I would agree with that, it’s Charlie, that the, you know, one of Romney’s problems I think as a candidate is that people are concerned about his sincerity. They’re concerned about the degree to which he really believes what he says, and I think that that problem is to some extent compounded by the fact that he does have a lot of advisers who have come out of the George W. administration, and who have, you know, conservative credentials and, you know, been there done that, tried that didn’t work, and I find it perplexing that after ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the strategies that were introduced by the Bush administration really have left us with very inconclusive outcomes. The degree to which they seem to be going back to a strategy that has manifestly failed, is quite troubling to me.

Major General Paul Eaton: Paul here. My colleagues and I see a complete lack of subtlety in the advice and the output from the Romney team, and when we say “a throwback” as my colleagues here have said, a throwback actually to a Cold War mentality, which we find frankly dangerous.

Question: Thank you very much and thanks to you all for presenting a very cogent case. I think Romney is trying to be the “uncola,” domestically as well on foreign policy, but I have to admit I have just read a far more erudite and demonstrating critique of Mr. Romney and Republican foreign policy in general , and surprisingly, I don’t know whether you’ve seen it yet, it’s George Will in the Washington Post today. He takes the Republicans apart for looking at the past and specifically attacks Romney wanting to add 100,000 troops to the Army, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We couldn’t ask for another piece of work supporting our position and I recommend to all of you that you read it, and maybe we should memorize it too.

Charlie Kupchan: I think that part of the reason that you’re seeing some qualms by people who are on the right and certainly supporting Romney, if Obama presents a reasonably tough target and that, usually the Republicans come into an election season feeling that their main trump card is national security, and that’s simply not the case now. Obama has been tough and smart. He got bin Laden, he’s been using drones to go after al Qaeda members, that’s proven not just more effective than occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, but a fraction of the cost. When you look at the details, it’s not surprising that Romney is flying at 30,000 feet and using a playbook from the past because when it comes to issue by issue, Obama’s in pretty good shape.

Question: Yep. Yep. I just want to make the point that Will, who normally is not on our side, really taking Romney apart in this piece this morning.

Bruce Jentleson: I would just add that, you know, politically that, you know, Romney is part of this “what does he really believe?” He’s trying to play to a couple different wings in his part: the neocon wing as well as the Republican version of isolationism. Democrats have had that problem in the past. I was senior advisor to Al Gore in 2000 and we had Ralph Nader on our left, and there’s a left to the Democratic party, but it’s not playing significantly in presidential politics right now. So Romney is just running around trying to pander, maybe tomorrow at the conservative coalition he’ll somehow try to combine Republican isolationism and kind of Republican, you know, neoconservative assertiveness and continue to show the contradictions between the two.

Major General Paul Eaton: I’d like to draw a link between Colonel Klass, who by the way had over 200 combat missions over Vietnam and participated in a conflict that the neocons could be proud of in their approach to stumbling into conflicts that are completely outside of what we consider the vital national interests, so Colonel Klass thank you very much.

Charlie Kupchan: I’d like to make just one other point, and this is almost kind of a query to see whether people on the call have any insight into this, but Romney does not hail from either extreme of the Republican tradition. That is to say he has historically been more of a centrist Republican hailing from the tradition of George H.W. Bush rather than George W. Bush and has also shied away from the other end of the party, the more sort of neoisolationist [Ron] Paul version. But what’s curious and what’s interesting and puzzling is that that’s not where he is, that’s not where he’s located himself, those aren’t the people that he has put around him. And I don’t know whether that’s because his party simply has moved and centrist Republicans are a dying breed, you can’t find them anymore, or whether he has just made a tactical decision that he doesn’t want to place himself in that tradition that has had prominence in the Republican party, really for several, several decades, but now is in receivership.

Question: I just wanted to pretty much approach the panel about the issue with border security in Mexico and the Dream Act. That’s pretty much, you know, on the agenda especially in the swing states in terms of Florida. But I just wanted to mention as far as Obama’s administration, what kind of progress they’ve made in terms of border security with Mexico and what the Romney team actually is talking about as far as their counterapproach on Obama’s work.

Major General Paul Eaton: I read a piece yesterday, I believe by Godar (?), that was a pretty refined analysis of what we face on our border with Mexico, and again Mexico is like China, an enemy we do not need, and it is a sense of engagement with Mexican leadership that we will solve our border problem. The GOP camp is all about walls. Military professionals will tell you that obstacles are not obstacles unless they are observed and you have a capacity to react to the agent coming up to the obstacle. So, rather than get after the root causes of illegal activity, of importing people, goods, and services that are not authorized or not legally authorized to come into the country, we need a far more subtle approach than what we’re hearing out of the Romney camp.

Sara Dubois: That will take us to the end of our time on this. Thank you all again so much for joining. Thank you to all of the participants and again, if you have any questions please feel free to follow up with me. We will post the audio on our website later today. Thank you all so much. Happy reporting.

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