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Mitt Romney's Dangerous Foreign Policy Team: Nostalgic for Bush, Hellbent on War with Iran

The candidate's foreign policy team features the usual belligerence, mixed with some serious nostalgia for a thoroughly discredited foreign policy framework.
 
 
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It's hard to watch the Romney campaign with a straight face. Their latest crackup has one Romney adviser, John Lehman,warning of the “Soviet threat," and another, Pierre Prosper, complaining that the administration hasn't done enough to stand with Czechoslovakia. And those comments were hardly the first time we've heard throwbacks to the Cold War in this campaign. But don't laugh too hard—it might distract from the dangerous and discredited worldview Romney's foreign policy team is pushing.

Despite Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan and his ramping up of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, Romney claims Obama is a president who does not want “America to be the strongest nation on earth,” as he told an audience at the Citadel military college in South Carolina.

Romney’s persistent knocks on Obama’s foreign policy make clear that, while the economy will be the number-one issue this year, foreign policy will be a close runner-up. Behind Romney’s statements on world affairs is a group of close advisers whose views harken back to the Bush administration’s belligerent neoconservative brand of US foreign policy--not the best idea, considering how discredited it has become.

“The most striking aspect of Romney's approach to foreign policy is its lack of creativity -- its brazen willingness to recycle Bush-era talking points, attitudes, and of course personnel,” said Peter Certo, a researcher at Right Web, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies. “A Romney administration would be a fresh canvas for the neocons to paint on.”

As the general election season heats up, the noise from the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party will only grow louder. So here’s a look at three of the top advisers shaping Romney’s view of the world.

1. Eliot Cohen. Currently a professor at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Cohen was a founder of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) and is now a special adviser for the Romney campaign. The Washington, DC-based PNAC was an influential incubator of neoconservative policy ideas whose members later went on to successfully push for the invasion of Iraq. He was a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Department of Defense advisory committee, while Donald Rumsfeld ran the show, and served as counselor to Condoleezza Rice while she was Secretary of State.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Cohen penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he labeled the US “war on terror” as “World War IV,” and advocated for the overthrow of both the Iranian and Iraqi governments. Cohen’s focus on Iran has not relented: in 2009, another op-ed in the Journal again called for the overthrow of the Iranian regime—which could only be accomplished by a full-scale invasion and occupation.

In October 2011, the prominent neoconservative wrote the foreword to a "white paper" laying out Romney’s foreign policy vision. It reads, in the words of journalist Max Blumenthal, as “a concoction of post-9/11 unilateralism and unvarnished neo-imperialism.”

The paper calls for boosting the military budget, and the assertion of US dominance in Asia against a “rising China.” The document also warns that the Arab Spring might become an “Arab winter” due to Iranian or Islamist influence, and criticizes the Obama administration’s plan on Iraq, which called for 3,000 troops to stay in the country after the expiration of the Status of Forces Agreement. The white paper called for 14,000-18,000 troops to stay on in the country. Today, only 150 American troops remain in Iraq.

On Iran, the country that Cohen and his neoconservative colleagues are currently targeting, the paper states: “U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with an understanding on Iran’s part that a military option to deal with their nuclear program remains on the table.” The paper also slams the “anti-American ‘Bolivarian’ movement across Latin America” and denounces the Obama administration’s alleged support for Manuel Zeyala, the Honduran president deposed in a coup in 2009.

All in all, the paper Cohen wrote the foreword to is an ode to US empire that pines for the Bush administration’s approach to international affairs. Having an official like Cohen figure so prominently in the campaign “represents a general refusal to repudiate the Bush administration's approach to intelligence gathering, its sunny view of the Iraq war, and its dismissive attitude toward the world community,” Right Web's Certo said. “It's a heavy nod to the ancien regime in an issue area that gets little attention from the public.”

2. Dan Senor. Well known for his past role as chief spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in American-occupied Iraq, Senor is closely linked to neoconservative policy circles. He is also currently a “special adviser” to Romney, and was a senior adviser for Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. Senor is a co-founder of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a PNAC-linked group that advocates for US pressure on Iran and a military solution to the crisis in Syria.

Senor has acted as one of Romney’s go-to men on Israel, a country Senor has close ties with. Senor is a former intern for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and still has ties to the lobby group. His sister, Wendy Singer, runs AIPAC's operations in Israel.

“He'll essentially be a Netanyahu guy inside the White House. He's going to be the AIPAC enforcer,” MJ Rosenberg, a prolific critic of AIPAC who used to work for the lobby, told AlterNet. Rosenberg also worked as chief of staff for Congressman Edward Feighan, D-Ohio while Senor was an intern there in the early 1990s. “You can't be an American and be closer to the right-wing part of Israel than Dan Senor is.”

Senor is the co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, which lauds Israel’s economic progress while skirting mention of the Israeli occupation--an omission that, as the Jewish Daily Forwardnoted, aligned “nicely with recent public relations efforts by Israel to shift attention away from its problems and toward its achievements.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called Senor and co-author Saul Singer (Wendy Singer's husband) “perceptive writers,” and quipped at a 2009 speech to the Jewish Federations of North America that Israel “is the start-up nation.” And when Netanyahu wanted to get a message across to Romney fast--that Netanyahu had played “no role” in billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s decision to bankroll Newt Gingrich--he relayed a message to Senor, according to the New York Times.

Senor is a contributor to various media outlets. In July 2010, before scheduled talks between Obama and Netanyahu, Senor took to the Daily Beast to argue that Obama “must reassure Netanyahu” in order to head off a “train wreck” for Mideast diplomacy. The argument dovetails with the view pushed by the Israel lobby that there should be no “daylight” between the US and Israel, and that disagreements on policy should be aired in private.

In September 2011, Senor wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the president had “launched” an “offensive” against Israel after a March 2010 announcement of new settlements in Jerusalem. In the same op-ed, he lambasted the State Department for considering Jerusalem, a city under occupation, separate from Israel proper.

Clearly, Senor’s position is that the US should never put pressure on Israel, which is exactly the position Romney professes. At a December 2011 debate in Iowa, Romney stated: “If we disagree with [Israel], like this president has time and time again, we don't do it in public like he's done it, we do it in private. And we let the Israeli leadership describe what they believe the right course is going forward.”

3. Cofer Black. A former vice-chairman for the private security company Blackwater USA, Black has been involved with the Romney campaign since 2007, when he came on as a senior adviser on counterterrorism and national security.

Writing in the Daily Beast, the right-leaning national security reporter Eli Lake explained that Black was Romney’s “trusted envoy to the murky world of the U.S. intelligence community who is also treated like a close political aide.” According to Lake’s reporting, Black sets up intelligence briefings for Romney from former CIA officers, and used his contacts in the Egyptian and Israeli intelligence worlds to debrief Romney on events in the region.

As Lake notes, Black’s claim to fame as a CIA officer is that he did “much of the street work” that led to the apprehension of Carlos the Jackal. He was part of the CIA team that tracked bin Laden in the 1990s. Black, a 28-year CIA veteran who directed the agency’s counter-terror center from 1999-2002, also served during the Bush administration as State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, and resigned shortly after Bush’s 2004 reelection.

According to Jeremy Scahill’s book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Black played “an essential role in crafting and implementing the Bush administration’s counter-terror policies.” Specifically, Black played an integral part in the use of “extraordinary renditions,” the euphemism for the Bush administration’s program of kidnapping alleged terrorists and spiriting them off to secret CIA prisons around the world to be tortured.

In 2005, Black joined the Blackwater USA team, the well-connected private security company that has been derided as a “mercenary” group, as vice chairman. He stayed on until 2008, a year after Blackwater agents committed the Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad, an event that resulted in the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians.

Black's influence on Romney's views on torture is clear. In a 2007 debate, Romney was asked whether water-boarding was torture. His response was noncommittal, but noted that he gets advice on those questions “from Cofer Black, who is a person who was responsible for counter-terrorism in the CIA for some 35 years.” In November 2011, Romney advisers made clear that the candidate does not believe that water-boarding is torture. 

 

Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and a staff reporter for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.
 
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