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The 2012 Horse Whisperers

Who's giving foreign-policy advice to the crop of GOP front-runners?

By , a former staff writer at Foreign Policy.

It’s officially summer, and the GOP presidential campaign is heating up. Tim Pawlenty is planning more stumping in Iowa, Michele Bachmann has now officially entered the race, and multiple potential candidates are waiting in the wings — preparing to enter the fray if the leading contenders stumble. And though all the pundits have proclaimed that this election will be dominated by talk of the economy and jobs, there has been a surprising amount of foreign-policy chatter in the first few months — even though the major Republican candidates are still forming their brain trusts and their foreign-policy identities.

So who’s whispering in the ear of the front-runners? Who’s advising them of the sound position to take for an electorate both war weary and yet concerned about national security? Of the four main candidates right now, only Jon Huntsman can creditably claim to be a foreign-policy expert — and he’s looking like a realist. Mitt Romney is trying to balance his talk of renewed American primacy with his realization that the country is both tired of unlimited interventions and cash-strapped. Pawlenty is staking out his ground as a hawk but doesn’t want to be tagged with the neoconservative label. Bachmann is also sounding a hawkish note, taking the mantle from Sarah Palin in pushing the Tea Party’s isolationist impulses toward an aggressive national security agenda.

Complicating the candidates’ mission, the Republican Party has been deeply split or at least seriously confused about its national security identity in recent weeks. There’s no consensus on how to proceed in Afghanistan, other than to say that politics should not trump national security considerations. There’s no agreement on what to do in Libya, other than to blame President Barack Obama for mishandling the situation there. GOP leadership is contemplating supporting defense budget cuts, to the chagrin of the party’s military hawks.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Republican and conservative foreign-policy professionals and think-tankers in Washington have yet to pick a horse. “What’s really struck me is how everybody has stayed away from being identified with a particular candidate,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. “Four years ago at this time, everybody was lined up in one place or the other. Now, everybody is certainly providing counsel to lots of the candidates, but people aren’t climbing into bed with anyone.”

That may be true, but the candidates are quietly getting their ducks in a row, consulting a wide range of experts, and lining up Washington’s foreign-policy elite. And, with a bit of digging, we found some surprises. So, at slight risk of jumping in a bit early, here’s Foreign Policy‘s look at who’s on board with the front-runners and what it might mean for Campaign 2012.


Mitt Romney: American primacy without being promiscuous

Romney, the presumptive front-runner, is the most far along of the major candidates in the development of his campaign’s foreign-policy infrastructure. He already has a senior brain trust in place, and that team is well on its way toward establishing the type of foreign-policy advisory groups that major campaigns need in a general election.

The core group includes Mitchell Reiss, the former State Department policy planning director under Secretary of State Colin Powell, Massachusetts former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, former top CIA official Cofer Black, and former Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor. This group was also with Romney during his first presidential run in 2008.

A senior Romney advisor told Foreign Policy that the Romney campaign is in the process of setting up a foreign-policy structure that mimics the National Security Council. Working groups will be set up based on regional and functional specialties to develop policy positions on every conceivable issue. The working groups’ ranks are to be filled in the coming weeks.

Last year, Romney was working directly with the Heritage Foundation to publicize his opposition to the New START missile reductions with Russia. But now he’s broadening the tent, making sure that in these early days any GOP foreign-policy thinkers who want to contribute have a mechanism to do so.

Like the other GOP candidates, Romney links national security strength to economic strength at home — and believes that America has been underinvesting in the military, dangerously so, and therefore would increase military spending. Among his common rhetorical tropes is that Obama has always been more invested in dealing with enemies than in investing in friendships.

But where Romney veers away from the hawkish script is in his desire to assure voters that he will not engage in wars of choice and is cognizant of the risks of overextending the military.

“The challenge for any Republican candidate is the fatigue that has set in among the American people after three wars,” said the advisor. “So how do you convey to them that you’re not going to retreat and pull up the drawbridge into Fortress America, which won’t work? But at the same time, that you’re not going to be promiscuous in your engagements overseas, and when in you engage in them, explain [them] to the American people.”

There’s evidence that Romney himself is having trouble threading that needle. In the first GOP debate in New Hampshire, he took criticism for saying that “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals,” and that “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.… Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”

But Romney’s advistor said that there’s no inconsistency in those remarks. All commanders want to bring troops home as soon as possible, and Romney isn’t advocating leaving Afghanistan before the job is done. With the independence remark, Romney was simply pointing out that ultimately, the Afghans will have to solve their own problems.

The advisor describes Romney’s foreign-policy frame as “American primacy with a heavy dose of selective engagement” and added, “I think that’s where most of the party is.”

George Frey/Getty Images

Tim Pawlenty: Don’t call me a neocon

If Romney is trying to find a balance between the traditionally hawkish GOP stance and the new strain of budget-minded intervention phobia, Pawlenty seems perfectly comfortable hewing toward the former. He has already positioned himself as the anti-isolationist candidate.

“Parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to outbid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments. This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party. The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great,” Pawlenty said in his June 28 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Behind the scenes, Pawlenty’s foreign-policy team centers on two senior advisors, campaign co-chair Vin Weber and senior foreign-policy advisor Brian Hook. Hook, a former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, also worked as an advisor to two U.S. ambassadors at the United Nations: Zalmay Khalilzad and John Bolton. Weber, a former congressman and former head of the National Endowment for Democracy, worked with the neoconservative group Project for the New American Century and was an early supporter of the invasion of Iraq.

On specific issues such as Obama’s approach to Israel, U.S. policy toward Iran, or U.S.-Russia relations, Pawlenty often shares the views of leading GOP hawks in the Senate such as Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). But Pawlenty doesn’t want to be identified as a neoconservative, and he doesn’t want his views to be tied to those senators in particular.

“I wish you could think of another way to describe this wing of the party, other than McCain and Lindsey Graham. I love John, but that’s like saying we’re embracing Nelson Rockefeller on economics,” Pawlenty joked during an interview with Bloomberg News.

But while Pawlenty doesn’t want to be tagged with the neoconservative brush, his positions simply can’t be seen as realist. He is against engagement with enemies for its own sake, believes in more forceful support of the Israeli government, and warns against a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“From what we can tell, Gov. Pawlenty has decided that the George W. Bush foreign policy is where he’s decided to stake his flag,” James Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview

Meanwhile, Pawlenty has, like Romney, been meeting with GOP foreign-policy experts of all stripes. He has a policy shop in place but hasn’t yet set about formalizing an outside advisory team.

In a way, Pawlenty has less room to maneuver on foreign policy because he has so many positions on the record over the last two years. In fact, part of Pawlenty’s foreign-policy argument is that he has been public and out front on these issues for some time. Pawlenty has been issuing statements on issues such as Syria, New START, and Israel. He even once called on Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to resign.

Overall, Pawlenty is committed to the idea that American primacy must be maintained aggressively and without any perceived retreat. Hook acknowledged that the party was no longer united in that view, but said that Pawlenty would stick to his guns, based on his personal, principled beliefs.

“Governor Pawlenty believes in an exceptional America. He believes that a president must provide strong and decisive leadership to the forces of democracy, and President Obama has repeatedly failed at this basic task,” he said. “We don’t have that certainty that we historically as Republicans have had.”


Michele Bachmann: The Tea Party’s new hawk

Despite all of Bachmann’s Tea Party credentials, she’s not looking like an isolationist when it comes to foreign policy. Quite the opposite, Bachmann is increasingly vocal in her role as the Tea Party’s hawk, pushing the movement back toward the policies of military-based interventionism.

For now, Bachmann is filling the space within the Tea Party left vacant by its former mother hawk, Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor — who has not yet made her intentions clear as to the 2012 race — was once advised by neoconservative foreign-policy consultant Randy Scheunemann, but she has now switched her stance and her advisory team. Her foreign-policy positions are now crafted by Peter Schweizer, a Hoover Institution fellow who blogs for Andrew Breitbart’s website Big Peace.

As of now, it’s unclear how far Palin’s foreign-policy shift will take her. But as the prospect of her presidential candidacy dwindles, it matters increasingly less. Bachmann, meanwhile, in a marked and seemingly calculated way, has come out forcefully seeking to separate out national security from the Tea Party’s cost-cutting, budget-slashing, government-shrinking agenda.

In a June 28 interview with NPR, Bachman criticized Obama’s announcement to draw down troops in Afghanistan, accused the president of placing political considerations ahead of national security, and implored the president to follow the advice of outgoing International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. David Petraeus, who recommended a slow pace of withdrawal.

“Gen. Petraeus, who’s in charge of winning the war effort in Afghanistan, understands that we need to win the war on terror. We must never forget that 9/11 was hatched in the caves and the mountains of Afghanistan. The Taliban has a presence there. Al Qaeda has a presence there. We must defeat them in their backyard. And it’s important that Gen. Petraeus and [Lt.] Gen. [John] Allen have the resources that they need to be successful in southern Afghanistan and then also in eastern Afghanistan,” she said.

If that sounds extremely close to the position of the leading GOP hawk senators, such as McCain, that’s because it is. In fact, Bachmann met with McCain in late June to discuss national security issues and Afghanistan, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. That’s not to say she is taking his advice directly, but she is seeking his counsel.

“People assume that Bachmann is a[n] isolationist, but she’s not. She’s actually pretty hawkish,” said one GOP consultant who is working with another candidate and did not wish to be named.

Bachmann did not vote to authorize the war in Libya; she also did not vote to cut off most funding for the mission there, breaking with her own party leadership. Bachmann’s stance on Libya isn’t as supportive of the mission as McCain’s, but it represents the deep frustration throughout Congress with the president’s handling of the mission, the consultant said.

“Obama’s bungling of the Libya war has made it almost impossible for Republicans to support him even as they continue to support his even less bungled Afghanistan strategy,” the consultant said.

In an interview, McCain noted that the GOP candidates aren’t straying too far from the party’s traditional stance on national security. The death of the hawkish GOP has been exaggerated, McCain said.

“That’s the same thing [that] was said in 2007, when a majority of the Senate wanted to withdraw from Iraq. In the end, it’s not a matter of the influence of one senator or one wing of the party; it’s a matter of principle and a matter of national security.”

(Bachmann’s campaign did not respond to requests for information about her in-house foreign-policy advisors.)

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jon Huntsman: The realist foreign-policy professional

There has been some reporting that Huntsman is being advised by a group of foreign-policy realists including former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. But none of those advisors has committed to Huntsman publicly, and they are talking to other campaigns as well.

“Those aren’t exclusive relationships. They are foreign-policy experts. If any candidate calls them up, they are going to take the call, and they are going to try to explain the world and what the issues are to the candidates. That’s just part of being a public servant,” said Lindsay. “To imply they are with Huntsman and are forsaking all others is misleading.”

Huntsman keeps his own counsel on foreign-policy matters. After all, he has been an ambassador twice and served as a top official at the Office of the United States Trade Representative. His last two years spent as Obama’s ambassador to China will be a major focus of his candidacy, but it could prove to be both an asset and a liability.

Huntsman has been criticizing the Chinese on human rights, but must largely stand by the Obama administration’s China policy — in which he played an integral role. That policy is sure to come under fire from the other campaigns, which plan to argue that the United States has lost influence relative to China under Obama and Huntsman’s watch.

On Afghanistan, Huntsman’s taking a realist position far to the left of Obama, calling for a steep reduction of U.S troops down to a standing presence of only 15,000. He told Esquire magazine, “Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it’s now or years from now, we’ll have an incendiary situation.… Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don’t think that serves our strategic interests.”

Regardless of whether Huntsman has struck the right note on foreign-policy among conservatives across the country, most GOP foreign-policy hands doubt that he has enough popular support to propel him to the top tier of candidates anyway.

That leaves three main candidates who are all advocating increased military spending, an enduring presence in Afghanistan, and a more assertive U.S. role in the world than has been seen over the last four years.

“Romney gave one muddled answer in a debate about Afghanistan, and the press jumped to the conclusion that the whole Republican Party had gone soft,” said a top GOP foreign-policy consultant. “Actually, it’s still a hawkish field, and it’s still well to the right of President Obama.”

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Josh Rogin is a former staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshrogin

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