- By Josh Rogin
Former World Bank President Bob Zoellick has begun work as the head of national security transition planning for Mitt Romney‘s presidential campaign, causing an uproar inside the campaign’s foreign-policy advisory team and spawning concern in parts of the greater Republican foreign-policy establishment.
Zoellick, who already moved to Boston to take up a position at Harvard University, is the new head of the team planning national-security appointments in a potential Romney administration, four advisors to the campaign told The Cable. The campaign officially declined to comment on what is known internally as the "Readiness Project," led by Mike Leavitt, former Health and Human Services Secretary under George W. Bush. But several advisors said that top campaign officials are working hard behind the scenes to assuage Republican concerns both inside and outside the campaign about what Zoellick’s new and important role would mean for them, for Romney’s foreign-policy identity, and for the potential next administration.
The chief complaint among critics is that Zoellick, who served as deputy secretary of state under Bush before being appointed to head the World Bank, is a foreign-policy realist who has seemed too friendly toward China and, as a disciple of former Secretary of State James Baker, not friendly enough toward Israel. Romney’s vows to be tougher on China and closer to the Israeli government are key pillars of his foreign-policy platform.
"Bob Zoellick couldn’t be more conservative in the branch of the GOP he represents," said Danielle Pletka, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. "He’s pro-China to the point of mania, he’s an establishment guy, he’s a trade-first guy. He’s basically a George H.W. Bush, old-school Republican."
Zoellick declined to comment for this story, but some say he has a reputation for butting heads with others in the GOP national security community, including his former boss Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, two officials often mooted as potential cabinet picks in a Romney administration.
"There aren’t too many people who can bring together Condi Rice and John Bolton, but they were united in their dislike of Bob Zoellick," one Romney foreign-policy advisor said. Both Rice and Bolton did not respond to requests for comment.
Zoellick’s selection to the new job, which will ramp up after Labor Day when the Romney transition team opens up an office in Washington, caused severe blowback within the campaign’s policy team. That team is filled with experts and former officials who disagree with one other and are unhappy with the process run by policy director Lanhee Chen and foreign-policy coordinator Alex Wong. But the Zoellick choice had several advisors up in arms to the point where the political leadership of the campaign went into damage-control mode.
"Mitt Romney’s made clear that he has conservative views on foreign policy and defense and those aren’t the views of Pragmatic Bob," one campaign foreign-policy advisor who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue told The Cable. "I’ve been reassured that this is walled off from policy, but he’s an aggressive guy and he has his sights on being secretary of state, so there is obviously suspicion among people who were close to Romney before he was the presumptive nominee."
The idea that Zoellick will be not be involved in setting campaign policy before the election is central to the campaign’s internal argument for keeping him in his new post. Several sources close to the campaign told The Cable that Chen and other top campaign officials have been calling Republican experts and former officials to assure them that Zoellick’s role will be firewalled off from the campaign’s other activities and will only focus on what happens after Romney’s inauguration.
"Zoellick has no influence in the campaign and his appointment really means nothing for anything that happens over the next two and a half months in terms of the campaign," Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol told The Cable. "Bob Zoellick is an extremely able guy who is willing to do this and that’s great. The enemies of Zoellick are scared it means something big, but I think it’s being way overblown."
Inside the campaign, foreign-policy hands aren’t so sure. They say that Zoellick is an extremely ambitious Washington insider who badly wants to run the show in Foggy Bottom. Zoellick reached out to several campaigns during the primaries, even when he was still head of the World Bank, only cozying up to Romney senior staffers once it became apparent the former Massachusetts governor would get the nomination.
"Senior advisers to the campaign are at pains to argue that his role will be ministerial," wrote the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin in a blog post Wednesday. "For foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema."
Several advisors told The Cable that Brian Hook, former foreign-policy advisor to Tim Pawlenty, will be Zoellick’s deputy on the Romney national-security transition team.
Zoellick’s critics are still struggling to process what his reemergence as a key player means. But many say that the Romney campaign’s apparent lack of awareness and preparedness for the blowback shows that top advisors are still giving short shrift to national security issues.
"It’s quite possible they did this without any thought to what that meant," one outside advisor to the campaign told The Cable. "I’m not sure if they had any clue what the reaction would be from everybody."