Mitt Romney's Chimerical Foreign Policy

In Greek mythology, the chimera was a beast cobbled together from lions, snakes, and goats. In an accident of etymology, the term has also come to mean a foolish fantasy.

The term does a pretty good job of describing the foreign policy Mitt Romney has assembled so far -- though an even better metaphor might be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

In CNBC's recent "Commander-in-Chief" debate, Romney described his foreign policy as "pretty straightforward" and said he would be "guided by an overwhelming conviction": that "America has the strongest values, the strongest economy, and the strongest military."

Yet Romney has been anything but strong and full of conviction, particularly in the area where these vaunted attributes matter most: foreign policy. Romney's foreign policy was in full view on October 7 at the Citadel, where he presented a major address on foreign policy packed with dissonant approaches.

On the one hand, he described a hawkish, militant face to the world, such as "enhancing our deterrent against the Iranian regime" by regularly stationing carrier groups in the Persian Gulf, increasing the shipbuilding rate from nine to 15 per year, and redoubling our missile defense program. In the CNBC debate, Romney went even further, becoming the first major presidential candidate publicly to advocate a military confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons.

Under pressure, he later rolled back his approach to say that he would merely "back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option."

Such slipperiness was evident in that Citadel speech, where a Janus-faced Romney seamlessly switched from hawkishness to reveal a much softer, almost bureaucratic face -- particularly in areas where the politics, for him, are more challenging.

On the knotty problem of the Arab Spring, for instance, the best Romney could manage was a single presidential appointment, promising he would "begin organizing all of our diplomatic and assistance efforts in the greater Middle East under one official." On the thorny issue of Afghanistan, he pledged a "full review of our transition to the Afghan military to secure that nation's sovereignty from the tyranny of the Taliban." And when it came to how he would employ the Pentagon, he said only this: "I will speak with our generals in the field, and receive the best recommendation of our military commanders."

It was as if two different Romneys were speaking in the speech -- one swaggering, chesty, and militant, the other a Beltway bureaucrat. Taken on its own, each approach is at least consistent. But all together, Romney's chimerical policy suggests a presidency with strong-willed advisors running rough-shod over their principal, a preference for canned language about "exceptionalism," and a tactical approach centered on gestures about "strength," rather than actual strength.

Romney recently announced a wide-ranging, almost dizzying list of 22 different "foreign policy advisors." They ranged from neocons like Eliot Cohen (a principal architect of the Iraq War) to soft power diplomats like Paula Dobriansky (who ran public engagement under President George W. Bush).

Less examined was the contradictions between and within these advisors -- and the degree of influence they will have over their candidate.

Among these advisors, as well as the wildly variant promises Romney has been making, you can detect two strands of intellectual DNA, traceable to two very different political constituencies Romney needs. On the one hand, there are the "realists" represented by the first Bush administration. On the other hand are the neoconservatives who dominated the second Bush administration. So far, Romney has been trying to have it both ways -- but history shows this unnatural beast would rather tear itself apart that peacefully live as a hybrid.

George H.W. Bush was skeptical about sweeping doctrines and the role of idealism in foreign policy. He believed that multilateral institutions were an efficient way for America to pursue our interests, and he saw good in methodical, bureaucratic attempts to bring friends and foes together. On the basis of these beliefs, he refused to replace Saddam Hussein the first Gulf War, and he attempted a cool, calm oversight of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was attacked for the natural restraints of his approach (such as his refusal to remove Saddam Hussein from power in the Gulf War), but even President Obama has described himself as a fan of Bush's foreign policy.

Bush's brash, hot-headed son had very little interest in his father's approach. As he described in his recent memoir Decision Points, George W. Bush was more interested in a decision than the process that would drive it. Soon after he was sworn in, the U.S. abruptly withdrew from engagement with countries and regions, including China, the Middle East, and Russia, while overtly saber-rattling.

After 9/11, Bush and his neoconservative advisors abandoned any hints at Herbert Walker-style realism (such as W's early aversion to "nation-building"), instead exploiting the conjoined fear and ambition of that moment to ram through a foreign policy aimed at making the U.S. an "imperium of values" (columnist Ben Wattenberg's memorable phrase). Their push to unite universal ideals with unilateral military strength created an at once reckless and unapologetically ambitious foreign policy. The invasion of Iraq and the "global war on terror" followed.

Romney's defenders will doubtless argue that his unusual grafting of 41 and 43 reflects a nimble, facts-on-the-ground approach -- the defense now being offered for his changes on abortion and climate change, among others.

But the facts suggest that Romney's hybrid foreign policy may not just be a multi-faceted attempt to supply both hard and soft power at once. Instead, a deeper problem lurks: the realism may in fact be just a cover for a hidden neocon agenda. In other words, this chimera may actually be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Take Eliot Cohen's white paper titled "An American Century" that dominates Romney's official campaign website. It reads like George W. Bush Redux. Cohen/Romney still places an inordinate focus on the remaining "Axes of Evil" (North Korea and Iran); presents a blustery, likely inept Freedom Agenda 2.0; and, in a McCarthyite fashion, reframes anyone who questions the unilateral exercise of power as an adherent of "decline"; while presenting a transparently political agenda toward the Middle East.

It would be one thing if Mitt Romney was really as much of a neocon as Eliot Cohen. But experience suggests he is not. When he ran for president the first time, for instance, Romney promised to convene a "summit of nations" that would "include moderate Islamic states and other leading developed nations. The objective of the Summit would be to create a worldwide strategy to support Muslim nations and peoples, in their effort to defeat radical, violent Jihad."

Of course, now that Romney is a front-runner for the nomination in 2012, with a political base radically opposed to such engagement, such promises have disappeared. To be sure, chimeras are exceptional. But as Greek mythology shows, these foolish beasts only rarely win their fights.

Michael Signer is managing principal of Madison Law & Strategy Group, PLLC, author of Demagogue, and an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech.