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Mitt Romney, Latter-Day Neocon

If you liked George W. Bush’s foreign policy...

IN MITT ROMNEY’S 2010 campaign book, No Apology: The Case for National Greatness, the former Massachusetts governor cites twelve countries that the United States has invaded for the “cause of freedom.” Readers expecting to learn about World War II or the downfall of Slobodan Milošević might be surprised by Romney’s list. The dozen include not only the Philippines, where the United States sought to supplant the Spanish as imperial rulers in 1898 and then fought a brutal 14-year war against Filipino independence forces, but also, astonishingly, the Dominican Republic, where Lyndon Johnson sent the Marines in 1965 to prevent the return of an elected government toppled by a military junta.

One person who would be especially perplexed by this list is Mitt Romney, or at least the Mitt Romney of 18 years ago. When he challenged then-Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney criticized the intervention in Haiti and laid down strict rules for military action. The Boston Globe wrote, “Romney leans slightly toward an isolationist stance.” But as a presidential candidate, Romney has, yet again, changed positions.

Romney’s recent gung-ho romanticizing of America’s imperial calling might simply be ascribed to ignorance. But a close reading of his books and speeches suggest that the one-time quasi-isolationist is in the grips of a very different ideology. Romney has embraced a sharply defined worldview that calls for the United States to engage in a no-holds-barred struggle for global hegemony against the forces of darkness threatening Americans’ freedom. First among evils is Russia (our “number one geopolitical foe”), followed by China, and Iranian and other Islamists who want to establish a “caliphate with global reach and power.” To defeat them, Americans should use any means available, including what Romney euphemistically dubs “interrogation techniques.”

These ideas are new to Romney, but they have a long pedigree. Romney describes his foreign policy as seeking to create a “new American Century”—a term popularized by Time-Life founder Henry Luce in 1941 and recently revived by neoconservatives. “I’m guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion,” Romney declared last October. “This century must be an American Century.” His foreign policy white paper is even titled “An American Century: A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals.” But if he becomes president, will this vision actually guide his foreign policy, or would he return to a more limited view of America’s national interest? The circumstances of Romney’s life, and the prevailing ideology among Washington’s conservatives, suggest that, if he is elected, Romney’s campaign rhetoric is likely to become reality.

IN 1941, HENRY LUCE was, in many respects, a conventional upper-class Republican wary of the collectivist impulses he saw in the New Deal. Luce feared that, if Germany, Italy, and Japan were to overrun Europe and Asia, the United States would go beyond even the New Deal and embrace national socialism. In February 1941, he published an essay, “The American Century,” warning that, if the Axis powers emerged victorious, “there is not the slightest chance of anything faintly resembling a free economic system prevailing [here].” Luce called on the United States to enter the war as Britain’s “senior partner.”

But Luce also inherited from his father, a Presbyterian missionary in China, the earnest conviction that the United States had a special role in spreading capitalism, constitutionalism, and Christianity. Luce envisaged the struggle against the Axis as a Manichean contest; and he promised that, if the United States prevailed, it would succeed in remaking the world in its own spiritual and cultural image. It would create a “first American Century.” “It now becomes our time,” Luce wrote, “to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.”

Romney claims to be updating Luce’s core idea. “The United States is good. ... therefore, it is good for America to be strong,” he declares. Rewriting history, he insists, “We have never sought to impose ourselves on others, to seek colonies, or to engage in conquest.” He paints America’s adversaries as not merely competitors, but as embodying “inherent evil.” The historic role of the U.S. military, Romney says, has been “to thwart ... evil regimes.”

Romney was undoubtedly drawn to this evangelical view of America’s purpose for political reasons. During the primaries, facing voters consumed with fears about America’s moral decline, Romney invoked a full-throated Americanism—witness his embarrassingly corny renditions of “America the Beautiful”—to deflect conservatives’ concern about his commitment to their social agenda. He also needed to silence the worry, particularly prevalent among evangelicals, that his loyalties were not to flag and country, but to Mormon elders in Utah. In the general election, Romney is using his call for an American Century to draw a contrast with President Obama, whom he accuses of apologizing for the United States and acquiescing in its decline. This was the strategy successfully wielded by Ronald Reagan when he blamed Jimmy Carter for fostering “malaise” and promised to restore America’s “place in the sun.”

But there is also a deep personal connection that draws Romney to Luce and to an evangelical view of America’s purpose, and it suggests that his stance may reflect the inner Romney better than his quasi-isolationism did. In proclaiming an American Century, Luce was echoing his father, who himself was echoing a strain of evangelism that goes back to when the Puritans landed in New England and proclaimed their colony “a city upon a hill”—one that would serve as an example of perfection to those suffering under the Papal yoke. The content of American evangelism—from the particular evil faced to the means of combating it—has changed periodically, but the basic form has remained. And that’s where Romney’s Mormonism comes in.

Bible Belt Republicans may consider Romney’s faith faintly un-American, but Mormonism is the ultimate American religion. The Mormon experience replicates within America that of the Puritan émigrés to America: The persecuted Puritans cross the Atlantic to establish a “city upon a hill” and the persecuted Mormons traverse the continent to create their “Zion.” Where the Puritans saw America as the “new Jerusalem,” Mormons see America as the literal site of mankind’s creation and Jesus’ second coming. Later, the Mormons, like the American Protestants, began sending missionaries around the world. Romney’s embrace of American evangelism is thus consistent with, and possibly derives from, his Mormonism.

His stance also fits with his business experience. Romney saw himself as someone who could “turnaround”—to borrow the title of his book about the Olympics—ailing companies. The belief in that process—rather than in any specific objective—is integral to Romney’s political outlook. In No Apology, he uses that same term and metaphor to prescribe a comeback strategy for a nation in decline. Romney pictures himself doing for America, and for America’s place in an increasingly competitive world, what he did for the private sector and for the Olympics.

ROMNEY’S CURRENT version of the American Century owes much to that put forth by neoconservatives clustered around The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the American Enterprise Institute, some of whom founded in 1997 the now-disbanded Project for a New American Century, which was influential in calling for military action against Saddam Hussein. In 2009, some of the same people started the Foreign Policy Initiative. Many of Romney’s key advisers have been drawn from this loosely organized network and are credited by him with influencing his outlook.

Romney has ascribed global ambitions to Russia, China, and even Iran—nations that have displayed only regional military aims. And he has portrayed the struggle for world leadership with these lesser powers in apocalyptic terms formerly reserved for World War II and the cold war. “Only if America and the West succeed—if our economic and military strength endure—can we be confident that our children and grandchildren will be free,” he writes.

Romney and the neoconservatives have gone beyond Luce, who warned that “America cannot be responsible for the good behavior of the entire world.” Neoconservatives contend that America must attempt to change the regimes of its foes—even if those foes haven’t directly threatened the United States—and turn them into pro-American, free-market democracies. Romney has no regrets about America’s war of choice in Iraq, insisting implausibly that “the goal of a democratic Iraq allied with the United States is within our reach.”

Like some neoconservatives, Romney is more concerned about certain governments being pro-American, rather than democratic. He backed the Honduran military’s overthrow of a leftist president in 2009 and roundly condemned Obama for criticizing the coup. Romney also shares the view of many neoconservatives that Israel and its conservative government can do no wrong. He attacked Obama for demanding a West Bank settlement freeze. And Romney has hinted, through senior aide Dan Senor, that during a Romney presidency Israel would have a green light to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

SOME CYNICS ARGUE that you should ignore what a presidential candidate says about foreign policy. But this analysis makes a rule out of exceptions. Over the last four decades, presidents have generally attempted to do what they said they would. It is only when they have encountered impediments that they have changed course. Bill Clinton promised to emphasize geoeconomics over geo-politics and did so until he was brought up short by Japan’s resistance to trade pressures and by the outbreak of genocide in the Balkans. George W. Bush vowed to conduct his foreign policy with “humility” and to oppose “nation-building,” but he was confounded by the September 11 attacks.

There is only one area where presidential candidates have regularly failed to keep their promises. Clinton, Bush, and Obama promised to get tough with China but once in office became pussycats. I suspect the pattern would hold true for a President Romney, who has promised to declare China a currency-violator. But in other respects—including Romney’s overall stance toward China—there is good reason to believe that, if elected, he would try to carry out his version of neoconservative evangelism. It fits better with his own deeper beliefs about himself and the world, and, equally important, it also enjoys support among Washington GOPers.

Neoconservatives dominate the conservative media and think tanks. There are a few scattered Republican realists, including Robert Zoellick, whom Romney has selected to be the head of his foreign policy transition group, but they lack a base among Washington’s elites. Some younger Tea Partiers favor Ron Paul’s brand of isolationism, but the Tea Party has made its mark on domestic issues. The only way that Romney, who is highly sensitive to conservative opinion, might abandon his approach would be if it led to disaster. That is only too likely to occur.

U.S. foreign policy has historically depended on achieving its ends through shifting and diverse alliances that often include countries with which the United States is otherwise at odds. George H.W. Bush got Syria’s backing in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Obama has induced Russia to cooperate in sanctions against Iran. China remains important to the containment of North Korea. Iran was once an implicit ally in Afghanistan.

Romney’s agenda could make this kind of diplomacy difficult, if not impossible. Along with many neoconservatives— with the notable exception of Robert Kagan—he opposed the new New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. He has compared Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler and grouped Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda and the dream of a global caliphate. He warns that Iran is developing missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to the United States.

A Romney administration could also hinder the transition away from autocracy that is occurring thanks to the Arab Spring. Places like Egypt and Tunisia have to go through a long and painful transition that is likely to include rule by movements that the United States finds distasteful. In Egypt, it was all but inevitable that the Muslim Brotherhood, which made up the only organized opposition to Hosni Mubarak’s regime, would move into the vacuum created by his fall. Diplomacy would dictate that the United States work with groups like the Brotherhood and try to nudge them toward an appreciation of pluralism. But if Romney continues to put the Muslim Brotherhood in the same camp of “violent jihadist groups” as Al Qaeda, his administration is unlikely to do so. Egypt could go the way of Iran after the fall of the shah.

Most worryingly, this kind of polarized thinking could lead to unnecessary wars. The obvious possibility is with Iran—either initiated by Israel with U.S. support or by the United States alone. Such a war would be rife with unforeseen consequences and should be undertaken only in the direst circumstances. And there are other possible disasters on the horizon. An unyielding U.S. posture that disdains diplomacy could fuel conflicts in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, or in Georgia or Ukraine. Romney, of course, has a reputation for caution, but he is wedded to an ideology that could turn even a former business consultant into a warrior.  

This article appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the magazine.