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Romney Touts Negotiating Skills as Foreign Policy Credential

Romney Touts Negotiating Skills as Foreign Policy Credential

By Erin McPike - April 5, 2011

LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Mitt Romney is counting on a 2012 campaign that is about the economy and jobs. Rising turmoil in the Middle East could complicate strategy for his all-but-announced second presidential bid.

In private meetings with Republican activists, Romney has consistently waved off questions about health care reform in Massachusetts when he was governor there by responding that this election will hinge on the economy and jobs. But world events can wreak havoc on the best-laid plans of politicians.

That's not to say that Romney has avoided the explosive international news entirely. In his address Saturday to the Republican Jewish Coalition gathered here, he lambasted President Obama for what he characterized as a weak approach to international forces based on a lack of negotiating skills. But Romney never directly discussed U.S. involvement in Libya, leaving a group of reporters chasing him down a hall to ask him about this puzzling omission and whether he had a position on the United States launching a military offensive in a third Islamic country.

"I've got a lot of positions on a lot of topics," Romney said over his shoulder, "but walking down the hall probably isn't the best place to describe all those."

The day before, Romney had sidestepped a question about his recent trip to Afghanistan, saying he would discuss foreign policy in his speech on Saturday. But he neglected to talk about his trip or about continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in those remarks.

Romney traveled to Afghanistan, Israel and Jordan in January, and nearly three months later, he still has had little to say about what he came across when he was there. He only mentioned the journey briefly in a couple of radio and TV interviews when he was promoting the release of the paperback edition of his most recent book in early February. As for Israel, he penned an op-ed for National Review Online in February that simply took Obama to task for not standing up for Israel when the U.N. wanted a resolution to condemn the country.

Even here, at an event in which he was expected to flesh out his foreign policy views as the official opening of his presidential campaign nears, it was South Dakota Sen. John Thune who made the foreign policy news: Thune called on the Obama administration to remove U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford from his post in Damascus due to the country's continued support of terrorism.

Thune has taken himself out of the running for the GOP's presidential nomination next year, but Romney will have to compete with a slew of candidates who, like Thune, will not be shy about addressing sweeping questions about the role of the United States abroad. A wide array of political observers have begun to speculate over the last few months that foreign policy will play a much larger role in the coming election than previously suspected.

In particular, Romney has U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman waiting in the wings. Huntsman's posting in Beijing for the past 18 months may make him uniquely positioned to lead the debate on foreign affairs when he returns to the United States later this month. And he already showed an eagerness to campaign on his international experience when he first ran for governor of Utah in 2004.

In addition, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been busy on the campaign trail recounting his unusually heavy foreign travel for a governor and the extent of his trade missions. RealClearPolitics reported earlier this year that Pawlenty was effectively the first U.S. government official to enforce Iran sanctions, giving him an important credential as he discusses his record.

Newt Gingrich is perhaps the cautionary tale for Romney. The former House speaker has been outspoken in his criticism of President Obama for the mission in Libya, but from contradictory angles, leaving him open to criticism that his shifting positions have been confusing.

Then there's Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who stirred attention last month when he said in a speech in Iowa that defense spending could afford to be cut, telling his audience, "Anybody who says you can't save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon." He also said that the reduction of troops in Afghanistan is an idea that deserves more exploration.

The context of this assertion was not just tea party demands for cutting federal spending, but also Defense Secretary Robert Gates' comments that the United States government could begin to trim defense spending and lower troop levels. Mitt Romney has joined this conversation, but only in the most general way.

"Given what's happening in the world, we should not reduce our commitment to national security," Romney said in a speech to the Carroll County Lincoln Day dinner in Bartlett, N.H., in March. "In particular, we should not cut the number of our men and women in uniform."

That position is consistent with what Romney said throughout his first presidential campaign, when he argued for adding 100,000 troops to the military. In an interview in late 2007, he said he arrived at the number based on reading through research and talking to generals. In the same interview, when asked about the lack of foreign experience on his otherwise bulky resume, he explained that he's a quick study and has pored over information about national security, diplomacy and international trade.

Over the weekend, when he talked about his approach to foreign policy, Romney attacked Obama as a naïf on the world stage whose lack of negotiating skills has been a detriment to the United States. Once again, rather than offering his own vision for foreign affairs, he used the forum as a means to critique the president. As is normal for the opposition party, all the Republican candidates are united in their expressions of antipathy for the Democratic president, and Romney takes a back seat to none of his GOP rivals in this regard.

"Given all that's been happening in the world, the tumult in the world, given the fact that our economy is collapsing, we picked a fine time to pick as our president a man who has no experience in the private sector, no experience in negotiation, no experience really in leadership, and the consequence of seeing someone learn on the job of the presidency has not been a pretty sight," Romney said, opening his speech. "And that has been true both in foreign policy and domestic policy."

Romney continued by saying that the United States has had a consistent approach to foreign policy since President Truman was in office. He contended that Obama has veered from a tradition of American involvement in the world and a projection of strength by noting that Obama has been silent on a couple of occasions amid what he referred to as the president's "wandering foreign policy." He briefly touched on Obama's efforts in backing the ousted Honduras president and criticized Obama's dealings with North Korea and Russia.

Republican activists - and that's who are participating in presidential politics at this stage of the game - eat up this stuff. But as Gingrich learned, criticism of the president that sounds too knee-jerk can carry a cost. For his part Romney has begun to draw a specific contrast with Obama on foreign policy: experience in negotiating.

"I think the president's inexperience in negotiations contributed to less than positive developments on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations," he said, because he believed Obama hoped to show neutrality. "Now I know from negotiating, that's not how you start. You want the people around the table to know who you're going to stand by."

And on Monday, he ripped Obama for the administration's handling of the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged 9/11 co-conspirators at Guantanamo Bay, even though he agrees with the outcome. "An inexperienced and naïve president has finally reversed himself on Guantanamo and terrorist trials; let's hope he sees the light on his other flawed policies," he said.

This preview of how he will present a contrast to Obama if he becomes the nominee does show a feisty and engaged Romney, but it also underscores what could be a hurdle. Obama will have been dealing with the intricacies and nuances of American interests and challenges abroad every day as commander-in-chief for nearly four years, whereas Romney is beginning to parse the president's words as a negotiator because he has the business skills to know how it is done.

It remains to be seen whether the electorate accepts that leap and messaging strategy -- that negotiating skills in the boardroom qualify him for diplomatic negotiations against someone who will have had four years of experience -- but it's most unclear how Romney will handle foreign policy against a field that may not consider him the most experienced on the topic.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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