Mitt Romney’s dream team – or nightmare?

By J Brooks Spector 23 July 2012

Late at night these days, Mitt Romney tosses and turns as he contemplates what comes after the unpleasantness over his taxes, his Swiss and Cayman Islands cash hidey-holes, the confusion over when he stopped being the CEO of Bain Capital, his increasingly desperate twisting and turning over earlier positions on government-sponsored healthcare reform and abortion, among others. Now, he has another issue to ponder: who would be in his cabinet? By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

Maybe it was just that second burrito he ate at the last state fair in Iowa for the third campaign event that day (or was it Wisconsin, and where are we anyway, exactly? All these hotel rooms look so much alike and the campaign has been dragging on for years). Maybe it was dyspepsia from yet another one of those interviews where some hot shot reporter tries to fathom his current positions – beyond his current, stunningly vague nostrums in the “stump speech” he’s given half a hundred times already. 

Regardless, Mitt sits up on the edge of his bed, his dog nuzzles his hand as if to say “you won’t put me in a crate on the roof of one of your Cadillacs like you did to one of my forebears, will you?” Fully awake now, Romney tries to avoid the temptation of thinking about his future cabinet – the one he gets to appoint once he dispatches that interloper Barack Obama back to Hawaii, Chicago, Jakarta, Nairobi or Timbuktu or wherever it is he really comes from with all his un-American ideas about tax fairness, universal healthcare and leading from behind in multi-lateral foreign interventions. Well, okay, those drone attacks are fine but Obama really should have done that a lot more and gotten rid of all the nation’s enemies. And Osama bin Laden was just a lucky guess.

It’s too late. Mitt remembers that daunting set of dossiers about his potential cabinet choices that has been sitting on the night table for days already. And this task remains, now that he has finally figured out what he wanted to do for his running mate. Cabinet decisions don’t have to be made just yet, but the days after the election and before the actual inauguration will melt away and so basic decisions need to be ready to go as soon as the networks call the election. Wearily he switches on the bedside light, draws the top file closer and begins to read from it… again. 

Unlike a parliamentary democracy, America has no shadow cabinet in waiting to take over as soon as an election is completed and the government is turned over to what was the opposition party before. There is no automatic list of parliamentarians or legislators primed to step into cabinet chairs the moment the election is decided. Instead, a president must quickly pick his (and one day, her) cabinet – the secretaries of state, defence, treasury, attorney-general and all the rest – as well as all other key senior officials such as the top staff in the White House and those who will oversee the budget, serve as US trade representative, CIA director and national security advisor, among others. This system offers an incoming president great flexibility in picking his team – but one weakness is that the resulting cabinet will not have worked together – or even necessarily met each other before being called to serve. 

Though there are over 3,000 officials who must be appointed eventually by a president, a relative handful – maybe a hundred or so – must be ready to go the moment they are confirmed by the Senate and so can take over from caretaker officials filling in for senior career government officials. And that means a president must work through dozens of names of potential appointees to come to a final list as soon as possible. In creating this cabinet, the president must try to balance the different ideological wings and factions of his party, draw upon important representatives of key support groups, and simultaneously tap into a larger pool of influentials in think tanks and academia, or among business leaders and sitting political office holders. He also has to pick a few trusted advisors who have been allied and aligned with the incoming president for years for key positions in the White House itself. 

In practice, this means any presidential candidate has already started to think seriously about his senior core – even before being elected – although no one gets the nod (at least publicly) until after the election. In effect, in picking nominees, an incoming president tries to find people who can be true to his vision of policies – even as they are alert to and sympathetic of the nation’s political, social and economic realities. 

Right now, of course, there is a great rumbling – the Great Mentioner is having a field day working overtime – over whom  Romney will pick as his running mate as vice presidential candidate. There is a considerable buzz about the possibility of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice or Florida senator Marco Rubio, although somewhat smarter money seems to be on Ohio senator Rob Portman or Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. 

Although the results of the election will probably turn on how voters calculate Obama or Romney will perform as economic stewards of the domestic economy, the international environment is sufficiently problematic – and so much of the domestic economy actually depends on international economic decisions and issues – that foreign policy management will remain paramount for any administration.   

To help solidify and then bolster his slim foreign policy background and gravitas, some months back, Mitt Romney’s campaign established a foreign policy advisory panel for him, even before he had actually locked in the nomination for president. Congressman Adam Smith recently pointed out in an article in Foreign Policy that of “Romney’s 24 special advisors on foreign policy, 17 served in the Bush-Cheney administration”. That gives the panel at least a strong neo-con bent to it, even if this is not totally Romney’s perspective. This panel has been charged with providing both advice and analytical papers for Romney’s background – but the actual selection of appointees will ultimately be just one man’s decision. 

In April, the knowledgeable Washington policy veteran, Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb, gave his best guess of the most likely candidates for a Romney secretary of state. In Gelb’s view, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, current Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, former national security adviser (under George W Bush) Stephen Hadley, current deputy secretary of state William Burns and Harvard professor and former number-three State Department official (under George W Bush) Nicholas Burns (no relation) would all seem to have a kind of inside track. Well, maybe. 

However, Romney has staked out a notably hawkish foreign-policy/national-security platform – albeit in a general way in most cases. This may well limit his choices of whom he will pick to lead the state department – that is if he insists on having a secretary who agrees with him on most points. And though the above list might well be logical choices for an archetypal, generic, incoming Republican president (save for career diplomat and current state department senior officer William Burns), some can be eliminated from the list because they have already disagreed publicly with some of Romney’s expressed positions. 

In fact, some of Romney’s most strongly articulated positions have drawn significant bipartisan demurrals – and not just by Democrats. Back in March, Romney had said Russia is “without question our number-one geopolitical foe” but this position even earned a rebuke from former (Republican) secretary of State Colin Powell – and very little support from the foreign-policy community more generally. Romney has also publicly pledged to sanction China for manipulating its currency and he opposes talks with the Taliban, even as some influential Republican think-tankers, along with Democrats, have suggested a diplomatic exit from Afghanistan is the most plausible. 

Back in January 2011, Romney said his position was that American troops should stay there, although his current position is that withdrawal is the course, even if he has criticized the president for his public announcement of a timeline – the when and how of pulling out, rather than an “if.” Romney’s official website still says that “withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders.” 

This clearly could be ground for serious mismatches for most of Gelb’s punted list. Richard Haass, for example, favors an Afghanistan withdrawal more forcefully than Romney does. A few months ago, he wrote, “past sacrifice is a poor justification for continued sacrifice unless it is warranted. The truth is that while the United Sates still has interests in Afghanistan, none of them, other than opposing al-Qaeda, rise to the level of vital. And this vital interest can be addressed with a modest commitment of troops and dollars.” 

Meanwhile, in an op-ed piece in Foreign Policy magazine he co-authored with former Democratic administration official John Podesta, Steven Hadley has called for Taliban talks. Their article argued: “Efforts to reach a settlement should include an approach to Taliban elements that are ready to give up the fight and become part of the political process,” they wrote. “Such an approach would not – as some have suggested – constitute ‘surrender’ to America’s enemies.” 

And Nicholas Burns, the former number-three in Condoleezza Rice’s state department, told ABC News he lines up with the Obama administration on Afghanistan withdrawal. Burns explained, “I really think talking to the Taliban makes a lot of sense. I support that. I support the troop withdrawal that Obama announced at the Chicago summit in early May. I support the president’s view on that, so I obviously don’t agree with what governor Romney said.” Burns also questioned Romney’s macho talk on China. Burns says instead, “The complexity of that relationship (with China) does not lend itself to flip statements.” 

If these three issues are litmus tests for a Romney secretary of state, from Gelb’s original list, that only seems to leave William Burns – but he is currently Hillary Clinton’s deputy – and Robert Zoellick. He has not yet declared himself available to serve actively as a Romney advisor, sinice he is just coming off his tenure as World Bank head. 

There are, of course, other theoretical ways Romney could go. He could follow Obama’s path and pick a former campaign rival such as Jon Huntsman. Huntsman did drop out of the race early on and threw in his lot with Romney. He’s got foreign policy DNA as former ambassador to Singapore and then China – but the latter term was for Obama and his acknowledged “dovish” positions might not sit very well with Romney or his circle. 

Another way to go is to pick someone with foreign policy understanding, but, more importantly, enough Capitol Hill experience to survive a confirmation hearing. This may point to former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman who – following his legislative experience – has been active in US-Israel policy issues and was a cheerleader for the Bush Iraq invasion. He is now chairman of the board of the American Action Network, a conservative advocacy organisation in sync with American Crossroads, the Karl Rove superPAC that has provided Republican candidates with nearly $240-million. One mark in his favour is that if Romney actually wins, American Crossroads can take a bow and so picking Colman as his Foggy Bottom chief is a tangible way to say thank you. 

For the right wing at least, one other name keeps getting mentioned, even if such an appointment would send shivers down the back of virtually every Democrat and a fair number of foreign leaders as well – and that is the walrus-mustachioed John Bolton, the US’s UN ambassador during George W Bush’s presidency. Bolton has vociferously argued for some really tough love in response to Iranian and North Korean weapons proliferation and he clearly would be on course to try to drive tough bargains with Russia on things like missile defence development and deployment. 

Given Romney’s critique of Obama for being weak and waffle-ish with the Russians, assuming that hasn’t been simply a bit of campaign rhetoric, it would be hard to envision someone besides Bolton who would better embody such values. He could even be a theatrical bad cop to Romney’s good cop – but could Romney keep him sufficiently on a leash? Of course, even if Romney won and actually nominated Bolton, there would be a knock-down-drag-out confirmation battle in the Senate – right at the beginning of a putative Romney presidency. Good news for no one. 

Then, of course, there is a whole passel of retiring senators, or still-serving senators who might like to round out their national service with a magisterial stint as the country’s senior cabinet office holder. How about someone like Richard Lugar or John McCain – or someone else who was picked over in the vice presidential sweepstakes? 

However, even beyond state, given Romney’s predisposition to argue for strength and fortitude in foreign policy, probably no decision on staffing will be more interesting than his choice as secretary of defence. It has the largest departmental budget, it has those difficult challenges of finishing off Iraq and Afghanistan and all that exciting hardware to play with worldwide. 

Some analysts say a serious contender for this position would be general Michael Hayden, who served the Bush administration as head of the national security agency and CIA director. In fact, picking an experienced intelligence professional would be following a well-trod path: Robert Gates spent most of his career at CIA before stepping over to the Pentagon and Leon Panetta ran the CIA for Obama before moving last year. 

Muddying the waters for Hayden, however, have been his public doubts about military action against Iran’s nuclear programme. These might run too noticeably cross-grain to some of Romney’s other advisors or even his own views, given his statements about Iran. 

Then there is Hayden’s current boss at the Chertoff Group, founded and chaired by Michael Chertoff, who is a Romney foreign policy advisor and who served Bush as homeland security secretary. However, because Chertoff is a former judge on the US Court of Appeals, he may have set his cap for the position of attorney-general instead. 

Of course, Romney might decide to follow the Clinton pattern instead. Bill Clinton picked Maine Republican senator Bill Cohen and so Romney could elect to go with a Democrat such as Nebraska senator Ben Nelson, who has not sought re-election, supported the Iraq war and has the experience of serving on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee. Such a pick could provide the veneer of bi-partisanship in a Romney administration, but without giving up on the hawkish stance he seems to have staked out as his campaign position. 

Then, too, there is retiring senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman ran for the vice presidency on Al Gore’s 2000 Democratic ticket, then became an independent but strong conservative on issues such as the Middle East. Lieberman has joined up with buddy and Romney supporter John McCain to give some senate leadership on tightening Iran sanctions, moving towards aid to Syrian rebels and making Russian accession to the WTO dependent on the passage of new human rights legislation. In fact, potential vice presidential candidate Marco Rubio gave his foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution a couple of months back accompanied by Lieberman. But the latter has not endorsed Romney and that may be a deal breaker. 

For his national security advisor position, analysts say Cofer Black has the mix of expertise and ties to Romney to become his chief White House advisor on national security. He was Romney’s senior policy advisor on security issues during Romney’s 2008 campaign and then again in 2011. He’s run the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre from 1999-2002 and he is closely tied to Bush-era counterterrorism efforts, including rendition of suspected terrorists, as well as with the frequently bad-mouthed Blackwater Corporation, where he was vice president. Fortunately, this position does not call for senate confirmation or hearings. That would limit a debate on his record as well as preclude any real barriers to his appointment. 

Of course, if Romney wants to appoint a woman to the position, he might well go with Meghan O’Sullivan. She is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government but was a special assistant to George W Bush and his deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan. O’Sullivan is an expert on the kinds of regional conflicts that seem likely to be key to world affairs in the coming years – and she knows how the White House (and the rest of the foreign policy apparatus) works. 

Alternatively, there is also Elliott Abrams. Abrams has been a controversial figure over the years and a return to the centre ring would be a clear sign that the neo-cons are back in the saddle at the White House. Cohen was an assistant secretary of state back in the Reagan administration and then became deputy national security advisor for George W Bush. His portfolio included the Middle East and North Africa. Abrams is both a strong neoconservative and thoroughly pro-Israel. Noteworthy perhaps is that at the beginning of this year, the Romney campaign issued a press release that called attention to an Abrams article that had chastised Newt Gingrich for overstating his ties to Ronald Reagan. 

Key things to watch for as Mitt Romney sorts through those presumed folders with information about whom he might select for these positions include the following: 

Recent presidents like Obama and Clinton picked Republicans in the person of Robert Gates and William Cohen for continuity’s sake. It is at least a reasonable bet that Romney might go that route and pick someone with bipartisan credentials and roots in the opposition party for a major cabinet position. The security cluster is the logical place for this. 

Another emerging precedent has been the naming of women for key foreign policy positions. Madeleine Albright was UN ambassador and secretary and Condoleezza Rice was national security advisor and then secretary of state as well. And Obama has called upon Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice as secretary and UN ambassador respectively. Given Anne Romney’s public espousal of picking a woman as veep candidate, if that doesn’t happen, it seems at least reasonable Mitt would listen to his better half on another key position or two – assuming he’s elected, of course. 

A third precedent is the growing use of retreads from amongst the cohort of senior party advisors and officials from previous administrations who ended up “in exile” in the private sector, the media as heavyweight commentators, and at some of Washington’s more partisan think tanks – standing by to hear the summons that calls them back to work. George W Bush made use of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld – but it is a still-pending question as to whether a Romney administration would draw upon the neoconservative talent bank (remember, these are the folks who gave us Iraq, after all) once again – or would he pick yet others. An intriguing question about a Romney administration is whether any of the neoconservatives charged with leading America astray under Bush would make a comeback. 

Important to watch for in the days ahead, therefore, will be who does the spin and commentary on Romney’s imminent foreign trip to London for the opening of the Olympics – his wife’s horse is in it for the dressage event – and then as he goes on to Israel and Poland. The stopover in Israel obviously will be a prime place for Romney to mix it up on Middle East policy and take issue with Obama on his presumed weakness vis-à-vis Iran and Syria. Then it will be on to Poland, where he may give vent to his obsession with Russia as the US’s chief challenger for the coming century. One really has to wonder why he didn’t include a stopover in East Asia as well so that he could take a poke at China while he’s at it. DM

Read more:

  • Romney’s Secretary of State: Whittling the List at ABC News
  • Who Would Be Romney’s Foreign Policy Team? At the Huffington Post
  • Is There a Romney Doctrine? At the New York Times 
  • Mitt Romney Foreign Policy Team 17 of 24 Advisors Are Bush Neocons at 
  • In Israel, Romney to provide contrast with Obama at Reuters 
  • Analysts Try To Define Romney’s Foreign Policy at National Public Radio’s website 
  • An open letter to the Mitt Romney on American foreign policy leadership at Foreign Policy 
  • Q&A with CFR’s Richard Haass: 2012 elections, Afghanistan and why corporations are important in foreign policy
  • Romney plans foreign trip, audition as US leader at Business Week 
  • Mitt Romney overseas trip may provide respite at Politico 
  • The Restoration Doctrine by Richard N. Haass at the American Interest magazine
  • Romney plans foreign trip, audition as US leader at the AP

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gives a statement to reporters gathered at Middlesex Truck and Coach after he toured the facility during a campaign event in Roxbury, Massachusetts July 19, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi


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