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What does Mitt Romney believe on foreign policy?

News Analysis

We know some things about Mitt Romney's foreign policy positions: He believes President Obama has not been a strong enough ally of Israel or a strong enough opponent of Iran. He thinks the U.S. government should get involved in arming Syrian rebels. He believes that U.S. aid to Egypt should be tied to promises from that nation's leaders, including to protect Coptic Christians and respect a peace treaty with Israel. He wants to potentially dramatically increase Pentagon funding by spending at least 4 percent of gross domestic product on defense. He wants to build more naval ships and submarines. And he thinks Mr. Obama has been too willing to apologize for America on the world stage.

There's a lot we don't know. Romney has provided few details about exactly how his Middle East policy would differ from the president's, or how he would intensify pressure on Iran to keep that nation from developing a nuclear weapon beyond vague promises of increased sanctions. Romney's questionable claimsabout Mr. Obama's so-called "apology tour" reflect an overarching philosophy that the United States should be more assertive in the world, but how any such shift would play out is not clear. His campaign has criticized the Obama administration's handling of the Sept. 11 terror attack in Libya - with justification - but the complaint has mostly been that the administration did not label the attack terrorism quickly enough. And Romney's attempts to differentiate himself from the president on Afghanistan have been confusing, with the candidate both endorsing the timetable for withdrawal and criticizing the president for following it. 

Romney, who lacks foreign policy experience, offered what was billed as a major foreign policy speech on Monday. With the exception of his support for arming Syrian rebels and a vow to "restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf," he largely stuck to rhetorical attacks instead of drawing clear distinctions between himself and the president

To get a better understanding of what a President Romney would do on the world stage, it makes sense to look at his foreign policy advisers. (Some have been added since that list was put together last year.) Three of them held a conference call on Sunday, including longtime GOP foreign policy hand Richard Williamson, who Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, an ally of the Romney campaign, described as "the key foreign policy voice for the campaign." Yet as he again made clear on the conference call, Williamson is no more willing than his boss to get into specifics. In April, he compared Mr. Obama to Jimmy Carter and said the president's North Korea policy reflected "naivete and weakness "; last month, he said Romney would have averted the Libya and Egypt attacks by having been "more active [in the region] trying to work with civil society, with reformer movements, so we would be partners in this evolution, not running behind."  

Other prominent figures on the Romney foreign policy team include Jim Talent, Liz Cheney, Mitchell Reiss, Dan Senor, Kerry Healey, Alex Wong, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, Robert Kagan, Robert Zoellick and John Bolton. The last two - Zoellick and Bolton - were portrayed by the New York Times Monday as heading two competing factions within the campaign. Bolton is widely considered a staunch neoconservative (though he doesn't like the term) who criticized American support for the Arab Spring; the more moderate Zoellick sees greater limits on America's ability to dictate conditions abroad. The story paints the two men as among the competitors in shaping Romney's evolving foreign policy views, with one adviser noting that Romney has "left himself a lot of wiggle room" in terms of what he would do as president.

Bolton's views to some extent square with Romney's promises of a more confrontational posture with Iran and Russia as well as his call for more military spending. They also echo Romney's suggestion that the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts around the world amount to weakness. Bolton has been dismissive of the United Nations, which is part of the reason that President George W. Bush recess-appointed him as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.; he was widely seen as a unilateralist who put little stock in the concerns of other nations.

Kagan, Senor and Edelman - a close ally of former Vice President Dick Cheney - are directors of the Foreign Policy Initiative, which says in its mission statement that "strategic overreach is not the problem and retrenchment is not the solution." The group calls for a rejection of isolationism and generally supports a significant U.S. presence abroad, including keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. It also opposes the 2014 timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

That group, along with Bolton and some other Romney advisers, largely follows the foreign policy philosophy of the Bush administration. But they are countered by some degree by more moderate advisers like Zoellick and Mitchell Reiss, who has expressed support for negotiating with the Taliban. (Romney sided with the Bush-aligned advisers on that issue and opposes doing so.) Instead of aligning with a particular philosophical strain within the GOP, Romney appears to have decided simply to gather many of the leading foreign policy lights in his campaign and let them fight it out if and when he is elected.

That approach reflects the fact that Romney, who made a fortune in private equity before turning full time to politics, is more comfortable with economic issues than foreign policy. (As Mr. Obama likes to remind Americans, Romney called Russia "our No. 1 geopolitical foe," his foreign trip over the summer was marred by a series of gaffes, and he has seemed to contradict previous foreign policy positions at times.) It seems safe to assume that Romney would push to spend additional money on the military if elected and put forth rhetoric more closely aligned with Israel than the president generally does. Beyond that, his policies would largely be dictated by which advisers he chooses to follow.

So far, amid the bluster of the campaign, Romney's rhetoric has suggested he is aligned with his more neoconservative advisers, not the moderates. But that doesn't mean that if and when he enters the White House he won't pivot to the more diplomatic approach -- particularly in light of polls showing that the American public has grown weary of war. 

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