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Romney's foreign policy divides party

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Aug 27, 2012.

Published on Sep 1, 2012 12:50 PM
U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney meets with British Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2012. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is sounding more like the neo-conservative advisers his campaign has inherited from the presidency of Mr George W. Bush.

That has caused discomfort among the Republican Party's more pragmatic "realists" on international affairs.

It has also raised questions for analysts about how far a Romney presidency might go in its promise to out-tough the Obama administration.

The neo-conservatives' call for greater and freer use of American military power led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Their prominent role in Mr Romney's campaign team came into sharp focus following the killings of US diplomats last week.

When Mr Romney accused President Barack Obama of responding apologetically to Arab protesters' assaults on US embassy facilities in Libya and Egypt, prominent neo-conservatives such as former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld applauded the criticism.

However, prominent Republican moderates on foreign policy, including former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, a director of Mr Romney's transition team, kept silent last week on the statements.

Some Republican figures even criticised Mr Romney for what they saw was a hasty, muddled message that undercut America's unity while its diplomatic missions were under assault.

For Mr Romney, a former investment fund chief executive who served a four-year term as governor of Massachusetts, last week's intervention on Libya appeared aimed at building his stature on foreign policy and national security - issues on which Mr Obama has held a consistent advantage among voters, according to polls.

As Egyptians voiced dismay last Tuesday over a film made in the United States that criticised Prophet Muhammad, the US Embassy in Cairo issued a statement via Twitter condemning efforts "to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" or believers of other faiths.

After Arab street protests then led to attacks on that embassy and a US Consulate in Libya, Mr Romney told reporters the embassy release was "a disgraceful statement on the part of our administration to apologise for American values".

In tone and theme, Mr Romney's call for a more assertive US response reflects a foreign policy plan that he says would re-declare America's greatness and get tougher with China, Russia, Iran and other perceived foes.

As is common in US presidential campaigns, the challenging candidate has accused the White House of failing the toughness test, while giving little detail about how he would govern differently.

While Mr Romney's campaign statements broadly signal a return to policies of recent Republican presidents, the divide between the more ideological neo-conservatives and the "realists" has deepened the question of how far a Romney presidency might go to take a harder line on foreign policy than the Obama administration.

Mr Romney's foreign policy spokesman Alex Wong failed to respond to questions on the role of the neo-conservative camp in the candidate's thinking.

One uncertainty is how aggressive Mr Romney would be in applying policies that his campaign website says would deter "the path of regional hegemony for China" in East Asia and punish what it says are unfair Chinese trading practices.

Republican former secretary of state Colin Powell told ABC News in May that he was concerned about Mr Romney's foreign policy team, saying "some of them are quite far to the right".

Mr Romney's website lists prominent neo-conservatives as advisers, including the former spokesman for the US occupation authority in Iraq, Mr Dan Senor.

Last month, Mr Romney named Mr Zoellick to head a team organising his prospective appointments to national security posts, a move to which hardline Republicans objected.

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin called him an anathema whose quiet diplomacy with China during four years as the US trade representative had left him soft on Beijing.

Indeed, much Republican infighting over Mr Romney's foreign policy has focused on China.

Last Thursday, the presidential candidate repeated his vow to formally declare on his first day as president that the Chinese government cheats in world trade by suppressing the value of its currency to cheapen its exports. Such a presidential finding would open a path to US trade sanctions on China.

He also has promised to build what he calls a "Reagan economic zone" of countries trading with the US as a way of countering China's growing commercial power.

Tough Romney talk, notably on China, does not mean he would necessarily overhaul US policies once faced with the realities of office, said Mr Jeff Bader, a fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution who served for two years as Mr Obama's East Asia specialist at the National Security Council.

"We have an unhappy history of candidates taking a tough line on China during a campaign for political purposes", only to relent in office and "essentially adopt the policies of their predecessors", he told National Public Radio.

Mr Romney's campaign has also condemned Mr Obama for what it says is slack opposition to other long-acknowledged rivals or foes of the US, notably Russia and Iran.

But it has offered few specifics on policies in East or South-east Asia beyond his declared intent to rein in Chinese efforts to establish regional hegemony.