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Why Is Dan Senor Considered a Serious Foreign Policy Thinker?

Last night, shortly before the third presidential debate got underway, senior Mitt Romney adviser Dan Senor appeared on cable television, where he strained to explain the distinction between what his candidate would do regarding Iran and what Barack Obama actually has done. The struggle foreshadowed the debate itself, in which Romney offered hardly any specific ways to distinguish his foreign policy from the president’s. And it also reflected the past several months of politicking on international issues, which has seen Romney almost completely abandon substantive critiques of Obama’s tenure in favor of temperamental posturing and grand but practically meaningless ideological gestures.

Which actually brings us back to Senor.

Dan Senor is not the Romney campaign’s highest-ranking senior national security advisor–Alex Wong holds that distinction–but he has become its most prominent. Senor is a regular presence on cable news and was the subject of a New York Times profile that focused on his elevated stature on Team Romney. He was Romney’s most visible aide during his summer trip to Britain, Israel, and Poland—the campaign’s most important foreign-policy showcase before last night. In August, he was staffed to Paul Ryan, in part to coach the congressman on international affairs. This month, he helped prep Romney for last night.

And if Romney wins, it’s likely Senor will get a job in the foreign policy apparatus commensurate to his powerful campaign rank: Politico reported in August that he may be national security adviser. That would be an extraordinary ascent, considering Senor’s experience lies almost exclusively as a political operator rather than a policy practitioner. Or perhaps it’s not so extraordinary, since so much of the Romney campaign’s foreign policy is nothing but messaging.

THE LAST REPUBLICAN administration’s foreign policy team has many errors to account for. But one accusation that cannot be fairly leveled against Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz is that they were dilettantes in international politics. By contrast, Senor, 41, lacks a Ph.D and any time in executive-branch policymaking trenches. With a B.A. in history and a master’s in business, he began his political career as a foreign policy and communications advisor to Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, who sat on no foreign policy- or national security-related committees and was concerned primarily with immigration. 

“He was first and foremost in charge of the press operation,” Abraham told me of Senor, whom he praised, adding, “He was a little bit on the policy side, but his titles were principally on the media side.”

Senor’s main foreign-affairs credential derives from his 15-month stint in Iraq. Tellingly, he served not as a policy practitioner, but as a flack—he was the spokesperson for Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer. It’s hard to blame Senor, the spin guy, for the policy disasters of Bremer’s tenure. The farcical efforts at messaging, on the other hand, were his. In classic Bush administration fashion, Senor was good at explaining the grand question of Why We Were There, but he proved hapless at the rather more pressing task of explaining the occupation’s day-to-day activities and its responses to recent events. The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran has recounted an instance of Senor telling reporters, “Off the record: Paris is burning. On the record: Security and stability are returning to Iraq.” Associated Press reporter Jim Krane told me in an email that Senor once explained a suicide bombing by saying, “The reason we have bad days like this in Iraq is because we have had so many good days!” 

Senor stuck to his strategy even as it became apparent that the press was not buying what he was selling: CBS News’ Elizabeth Palmer remembered seasoned reporters laughing whenever newbies expressed bewilderment at the disconnect between the official line and the reality on the ground. A result was a rash of articles about how the CPA was stocked with Republican loyalists or was severely limiting media access: exactly the sort of process story that it was Senor’s job to squelch.

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Following his stint in Iraq, Senor went into the private sector—a series of financial endeavors, most recently at Republican donor Paul Singer’s hedge fund. “The real experience he got in New York was very helpful,” Bill Kristol, an early Senor mentor, told Tablet’s Allison Hoffman. “He really understands business and the business world in a way he might not have if he’d gotten a cushy job in the administration.” (It says something about the GOP foreign policy establishment’s respect for expertise when an administration job is “cushy” while making millions in the private sector represents dues-paying.)

Much of Senor’s additional claim to foreign-policy expertise derives from another private sector project. In 2009, he and his brother-in-law, the Israeli journalist Saul Singer, published Start-Up Nation, a compelling account of Israel’s outsize success as a venture-capital magnet. Hebrew University business professor Bernard Avishai—who in 1991 wrote a Harvard Business Review essay predicting what the book would report in retrospect, namely, that Israeli society was primed to become a high-tech hub—praised it. But he also told me that the book felt a bit like cheerleading. The argument, he summarized, is that Israel “is not just our aircraft carrier in the Middle East, they’re also a kind of vanguard economy in a part of the world that needs it, and we should therefore double-down on our support for Israel and the people who are promoting this—especially Bibi.” (As prime minister and finance minister, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made Israel’s economy vastly more capitalistic.) “It was a piece of Bibi’s brand management,” Avishai added. 

Still, having a book on his CV helped cement Senor’s standing in the conservative elite. He’d started consulting with Romney in 2006, the same year that he married Campbell Brown, at the time a prominent CNN journalist. (Lobbyist Ed Rogers threw them an engagement party at his McLean, Virginia, mansion.) In 2008, he became a Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow; a year later, he joined GOP macher Kristol as co-founder of an outfit called the Foreign Policy Initiative. Senor flirted with challenging New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010, his main asset being his connections to very rich New York Republicans.

And now, this cycle, he is a face of the GOP campaign. “Campaigns propel people very quickly,” Rogers, a veteran of several Republican presidential campaigns, told me. “If somebody begins to assert themselves and other people begin to notice, they move up the ranks very clearly....Every campaign produces those people, and this campaign, that’s Dan Senor."

SENOR’S MOST PROMINENT moment on the campaign to date encapsulated his strengths and weaknesses as an advisor. The middle leg of Romney’s foreign trip in July, in which he traveled to Israel, was probably the most successful segment of a generally negative week—and Senor planned it, tapping a vast network of friends and allies. But for all Senor’s value in setting the trip up, things went south when he turned to policy. In Israel, he told reporters that Romney would declare Israel’s right to attack Iran—something Romney was not planning to do. The campaign quickly walked back the quote, with anonymous aides telling reporters that Senor got “a little ahead” of himself. The other Holy Land gaffe was also Senor-related, in a vague way: Romney drew flack for attributing the discrepancy between Israel’s and the West Bank’s economies to “culture,” a breezy, inapposite comparison borrowed from one of Start-Up Nation’s more pop-anthropological riffs.

Senor is ubiquitous because his default mindset is that most cliched of campaign imperatives: win the day. For instance, when the Arab Spring began to take a sour turn in newspaper headlines, Senor was quick to proclaim that the Bush-era “Freedom Agenda” just wouldn’t cut it any more—this despite the fact that, in the mid-2000s, Senor’s job involved selling said Agenda. (The Daily Show memorably lampooned the flip-flop.) Senor’s quotes on behalf of Romney are similarly malleable. Rather than offering specifics, he makes broad, blurry charges about the president’s “leading from behind” and “unraveling” strategy. When in a recent interview Andrea Mitchell asked, “What would Governor Romney do differently than President Obama is planning to do?” Senor fell back on an ideological critique that managed to be at once grand and meaningless. “You have to take a step back and say, has this administration been an observer of events rather than a shaper of them?” Um, is that a multiple-choice question?

But what choice does the Romney campaign have? With a Democratic opponent who is, unusually, strong on national security issues, Republicans have no choice but to spin smaller criticisms into a broader temperamental case about Obama’s supposed lack of toughness. This, in turn, propels the campaign to place extra chips on the Middle East, which in U.S. politics most easily lends itself to Manichean framing. Against that backdrop, Senor’s ideological certitude is more valuable than nuanced analysis. Not that the campaign’s PR apparatus would cop to that. Team Romney apparently believes policy expertise can be earned by working as a partisan foot soldier. And there, Senor has a compelling resume.

Follow me on Twitter @marcatracy.