On June 21, 2007, Mitt Romney delivered a speech at the annual summer retreat of the American Enterprise Institute in Beaver Creek, Colorado. To coincide with the address, his campaign released a statement explaining the candidate’s vision for fighting the war on terrorism. Re-reading that statement today, it is impossible not to be struck by one of the items on Romney’s agenda: “Launch A New Type Of Marshall Plan Unifying Non-Military Sources Of Power To Support Moderate Muslims.” This initiative, the campaign explained, “will assemble the resources of all developed nations to assure that threatened Islamic states have public schools, micro-credit and banking, the rule of law, human rights, basic health care, and competitive economic policies. Resources would be drawn from public and private institutions, and from volunteers and NGOs.”
It seems safe to say that Romney will not be spending a lot of time on the campaign trail this year talking about improving public education for Muslim children or ensuring that Muslim societies provide good health care for their citizens. That’s because the GOP foreign policy debate has changed profoundly since the last campaign. To understand why, you have to back up to the 1970s, when neoconservatives launched an insurgent campaign against the Republican foreign policy establishment, which at the time was largely composed of realists. For a generation, the two groups tussled; but, by 2008, the neocons had more or less won control of the party. Many realists, from Colin Powell to Brent Scowcroft, began openly distancing themselves from the Bush administration. The neocons were now the establishment. And, within the party, they had no obvious challengers.
As a result, with the cantankerous exception of Ron Paul, most of the 2008 candidates didn’t deviate much from the hawkish, democracy-promoting, nation-building foreign policy vision of George W. Bush. John McCain stood squarely with the president. Rudy Giuliani, too, made clear that he hoped to remake the world in America’s image. Of all the major candidates, Romney’s views were probably the least well-defined and the most complicated. But, to the extent that he had misgivings about Bush’s foreign policy, he mostly kept it behind closed doors—and, in public, largely toed the Bush line.
In the last few years, however, new insurgents began to emerge within the party, and new ideas moved to the center of the debate. The result is not simply that Republican candidates are, on the whole, less inclined to support democratization and nation-building this time around. It’s that the very terms of the GOP foreign policy discussion have changed—or rather imploded entirely, leaving in their wake a difficult-to-parse ideological brew of policy disagreements and competing instincts.
Making sense of this situation is especially complicated because most of the candidates, with the exception of Romney, are just beginning to form foreign policy teams. Still, that doesn’t mean their ideas about the world remain a blank slate. If you spend enough time talking to their official and unofficial advisers, it is possible to develop a sense of where Romney and Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry fit within the newly fractious world of Republican foreign policy—and what they might do if they win.
STRANGELY ENOUGH, the best place to begin is with a candidate who is not going to be president. In March, Herman Cain—who, before he was eclipsed by Bachmann, had managed to position himself as the candidate of the Tea Party—was asked whether he would appoint Muslims to his cabinet or federal courts. “No, I will not,” he replied. “And here’s why: There is this creeping attempt—there is this attempt to gradually ease sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government.”
At the time, the loudest criticism of Cain’s remarks came from liberals. But many conservatives were also deeply uncomfortable with the sentiments. When Cain subsequently appeared at the “Wednesday meeting”—a weekly off-the-record gathering of Washington conservatives that has taken place for years under the leadership of activist Grover Norquist—he found himself being chastised, according to two people familiar with what happened. “A Jewish conservative in the room told him, ‘As a Jew, your statements about a religious test are frightening,’” recalls one attendee. This source says that four other people in the meeting tried to reframe Cain’s words in such a way that they would be less offensive. “They disagreed with him. They said, ‘I know what you are trying to say, but maybe you should say it this way.’” (Cain’s campaign refused to comment on the incident and noted that the candidate has “repeatedly clarified” that he would not, in fact, have a religious test when making appointments.)
Cain had stepped into the middle of a dispute that has quietly been roiling conservative circles for years. At the core of the disagreement is whether the United States is at war with a very specific, radical subset of Islam—or whether the country is, in fact, locked in a broader confrontation with mainstream Islam. The Bush administration had placed itself firmly on the former side of the argument. But it wasn’t just Bush: The entire neoconservative vision for the Middle East was premised on the notion that mainstream Islam was compatible with democracy and liberalism, and that it was therefore worth using U.S. power to help Muslims build freer societies.
Bizarrely, Norquist—who is best-known as an anti-tax activist—was a player in this intra-conservative dispute about Islam. Norquist had long believed that Muslim Americans were a natural Republican constituency, and his outreach to them had taken a number of forms. In the late ’90s, he founded a group called the Islamic Free Market Institute, and, following September 11, he often introduced American Muslim leaders to leading Republicans.
These activities made some of his fellow conservatives intensely upset. One such conservative was Frank Gaffney, a veteran of Senator “Scoop” Jackson’s office in the ’70s and later a Reagan administration official. Gaffney’s group, the Center for Security Policy, had actually shared office space with Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform, in the late ’90s. But the two men had experienced a very bitter falling out over the role of Islam in American life. Gaffney, for example, revealed that the Islamic Free Market Institute had taken a $10,000 donation from Abdurahman Alamoudi in 1999. Alamoudi, the former head of the American Muslim Council, was later convicted of taking Libyan money to kill the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. (Norquist says the institute ended its association with Alamoudi after comments he made praising Hamas became public—and long before he was arrested in 2003.)
By the time the 2012 campaign season started, Gaffney and Andy McCarthy—a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing—had become the leading proponents of the view that not simply radical Islam but also mainstream Islam posed a threat to the United States. “Today, ‘moderate Islam’ is an illusion,” McCarthy has written. “There is hardly a spark, much less a wildfire. Making moderation real will take more than wishing upon a star.” Gaffney and McCarthy were generally careful to express affinity for those Muslims they viewed as true reformers. Still, they claimed that what had been widely portrayed as mainstream Islam was deeply dangerous to the United States. Specifically, they argued that numerous American Muslim organizations were doing the bidding of the Muslim Brotherhood by seeking to turn the United States into an Islamic Republic over time.
Last year, Gaffney, McCarthy, and others released a report called “The Team B II Report,” a nod to “The Team B Report” of the ’70s, in which a number of conservatives argued that the CIA was grossly underestimating the Soviet Union’s military spending. The new Team B report tackled the threat jihadists pose to the United States. While the introduction acknowledges that there are different interpretations of sharia, in its body the report blurs this line, implying that the most radical interpretation of Islamic law is the correct one. And it warns that there is an effort underway to infiltrate the country and impose sharia law from within. “To the extent that imams and mosques are being used to advocate shariah in America, they are promoting seditious activity and should be warned that they will be subject to investigation and prosecution,” the report says.
The notion that there is currently a stealth jihad seeking to infiltrate the United States has found multiple champions among the GOP candidates. Cain and Newt Gingrich have both spoken about it. But neither Cain nor Gingrich are widely considered viable contenders. Instead, the great hope for those who see sharia as a major threat to American life is Michele Bachmann.
Bachmann is commonly viewed as the Tea Party’s favorite candidate, and she is known mostly for her domestic views: her uncompromising stance against the welfare state, as well as her staunch opposition to gay rights. But it would be incorrect to view Bachmann as someone who is unconcerned with foreign policy. Former Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra told me that Bachmann approached him in December 2009 and asked for advice about how to get onto the House Intelligence Committee. (At the time, Hoekstra was the committee’s ranking Republican.) She eventually joined the committee in January 2011.
When I started asking around about Bachmann’s foreign policy ideas, I heard the same thing from multiple people: that I should talk to Frank Gaffney. Gaffney himself stressed that he had no formal relationship with Bachmann as an adviser. But he did say that he had contact with several of the GOP candidates. And, of Bachmann, he said this: “She is a friend and a person I admire. I hope she is getting the best counsel she can.” He added, “We are a resource she has tapped, I’m assuming among many others.” When I asked him whether Bachmann had been briefed on the Team B II Report, he replied, “We’ve spent hours, over several days with her. I think she’s got the bulk of what we would tell her in one of the more formal presentations.”
For her part, when the Team B II Report was released, Bachmann issued a statement praising it. “The Team B II authors and contributors are to be commended upon the release of their systematic and thorough piece of research, which will highly add to the discussion of sharia law’s impact on the United States,” she said. Not surprisingly, Bachmann was the first candidate to sign a controversial pledge in Iowa that committed her to rejecting “Sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.”
“She really gets it that there is a stealth jihad by radical Islamists in this country,” says Sarah Stern, the president and founder of the Endowment for Middle East Truth. Stern recalls a conversation that she had with Bachmann in the congresswoman’s office in October 2010. Stern says Bachmann was talking about “the depth of radical Islam in Minneapolis.” (Minneapolis was the site of a longtime operation by Al Shabab to recruit Somali-Americans to fight in Somalia.) “She actually said, ‘Right here, coming to a theater near you, we have stealth jihad in Minnesota,’” Stern told me approvingly.
Bachmann’s connection to the Team B II Report—and her conviction that sharia law is a threat to the United States—helps explain some of the key places that she splits from the neoconservatives. To most neocons, the Arab Spring was good news, because it meant the potential spread of democracy in the Muslim world. But the Team B II crowd was pessimistic. “Ever since 2003, when the thrust of the War On Terror stopped being the defeat of America’s enemies and decisively shifted to nation-building, we have insisted—against history, law, language, and logic—that Islamic culture is perfectly compatible with and hospitable to Western-style democracy,” McCarthy has written. “It is not, it never has been, and it never will be.”
Such ideas almost certainly explain why Bachmann showed little interest in backing the Arab protesters earlier this year. Many neocons attacked President Obama for not doing enough to support the protesters in Egypt, but Bachmann criticized the president from the opposite side. “He wasn’t perfect, but [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak was one of the best friends that we had in the Middle East region,” she said in a speech in April. “When Mubarak was in trouble, where was the president? He was sitting on his hands and let Mubarak fall.”
Bachmann carved out a similar position on Libya. The neocons largely lined up behind the intervention, but Bachmann, like Gaffney and McCarthy, disagreed. She warned that the Libyans whom Obama was defending could in fact be enemies of the United States. “One thing the American people need to know is that we did not know—nor did the intelligence community know—who the opposition is,” she said on NBC’s “The Today Show” during the early days of the Libya campaign. “There are flickers of Al Qaeda. We don’t know how much Al Qaeda is involved in the opposition forces.” Recently, Bachmann voted for a resolution sponsored by Dennis Kucinich calling for an end to the Libyan intervention.
BACHMANN’S VIEWS on sharia are apparently popular enough that Tim Pawlenty—who planned to run as the conservative alternative to Romney, but has found himself eclipsed by Bachmann—has felt the need to nod in the same direction. In March, Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Pawlenty campaign, told Politico that the governor personally shut down a sharia-compliant finance program in Minnesota, because “the United States should be governed by the U.S. Constitution, not religious laws.” And, when I asked Conant whether his candidate believed there was a threat to the Constitution from sharia, he said yes. “He does think there is a threat from sharia or any religious law or international law of undermining U.S. law and the Constitution,” Conant explained. “The threat is the courts would look to sharia law instead of the U.S. Constitution, and the governor would vigorously oppose this.”
At the same time, Pawlenty is also the one candidate in the race who has enthusiastically adopted more traditional neoconservative positions. He called for Mubarak to step down before Obama did, and he later supported the war in Libya. In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in June, he slammed Obama for not doing enough to promote democracy. “America,” Pawlenty said in the speech, “should always promote the universal principles that undergird freedom.” With its calls for the United States to defend human rights and self-determination, the speech sounded a lot like George W. Bush—and nothing like Bachmann.
But Pawlenty’s speech wasn’t only an implicit rebuke to some of the ideas espoused by Bachmann, Gaffney, and McCarthy. It was also a rebuke to the faction of the Republican Party—virtually nonexistent during the Bush years, but now increasingly prominent—that wants to impose austerity not just on the social safety net at home, but on military spending abroad. The lines in this debate were clearly drawn last year, when American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, Heritage Foundation President Ed Fuelner, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled, “PEACE DOESN’T KEEP ITSELF.” The point was simple: Defense spending should not be on the chopping block. In response, 27 leading conservative activists—including Al Regnery, the conservative book publisher; Brent Bozell, the head of the Media Research Center; David Keene, the former head of the American Conservative Union; and Norquist—sent a letter to the House leadership calling for cuts in military spending. “Department of Defense spending, in particular, has been provided protected status that has isolated it from serious scrutiny and allowed the Pentagon to waste billions in taxpayer money,” the letter said.
Except for Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, and Gary Johnson (an ardent libertarian, including on social issues), no candidate has called for cuts in defense spending. Even Bachmann, the candidate most closely aligned with the Tea Party, has warned against cutting the defense budget. But, while there is no mainstream candidate who is calling for austerity on defense, it would be impossible to argue that the penny-pinching mood among Republicans hasn’t influenced the general tenor of GOP foreign policy discussions—and made the candidates less inclined to sound the kinds of grandiose and expensive notes about foreign policy that were considered par for the course in 2008.
All the candidates, that is, except Pawlenty. No candidate has been as aggressive in condemning conservatives who want to downsize the Pentagon. “History repeatedly warns us that, in the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll save in a budget line item,” he said in his CFR speech. Pawlenty’s foreign policy adviser, Brian Hook—a conservative lawyer who served as Bush’s assistant secretary of state for international organizations—told me that Pawlenty “believes as a matter of principle that America is the indispensable nation and that weakness in foreign policy always carries a high price tag. The number one source of our fiscal problems is domestic spending, and for politicians from either party to suggest that we can solve the deficit by cutting defense or disengaging overseas is irresponsible and not true.”
This approach to defense spending has earned Pawlenty criticism from Norquist. The conservative activist may not like the Gaffney worldview that has done so much to influence Bachmann—but he certainly isn’t on board with the big-government neoconservatism of Pawlenty. “There seems to be a strategy by Pawlenty, when things weren’t going well, he attacked other guys as isolationists,” Norquist told me. “It does not appear to be a successful strategy.”
TOWARD THE END of 2006, as President Bush was preparing to commit to the surge in Iraq, the White House had a serious political concern: It worried that the top Republican candidates could potentially oppose the surge. Sam Brownback, who was leaving the Senate and had hinted he would run for president, had already voiced doubts about the policy. Bush officials worried that other candidates would follow.
And so, the White House began reaching out to the campaigns in a bid to persuade them to stay on board with the surge. One Republican operative described the effort like this: “If the future of the party was signaling any difference on the surge, it would crater and then it would be nothing. The White House worked so aggressively to keep all the major campaigns informed on the surge. There was a mini-lobbying campaign on it.” The goal, according to the source, was to “keep them informed and keep them from directly opposing the surge or even signaling unease.”
Of all the Republican candidates that year, Romney was the one the White House should have been most worried about. Then as now, his views on world affairs were ill-defined. At its best, this can mean open-mindedness in the Romney campaign. For instance, in August 2007, Romney invited national security expert Michael O’Hanlon to brief him. O’Hanlon was both a Democrat (albeit a hawkish one) and, at the time, an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “I was gratified I was invited,” O’Hanlon recalls. “I thought it was a serious approach by the Romney campaign to get different points of view.” O’Hanlon briefed a group of about ten or twelve people. “I liked the way they worked together,” he says. “Governor Romney was content not to be the alpha dog in the meeting.”
But, while such open-mindedness is an admirable thing, people also want to know that presidential candidates have strong convictions on the most important issues. And, with Romney and Iraq, it wasn’t always clear whether he did. His camp in 2007 was divided. One of Romney’s top foreign policy advisers, Mitchell Reiss—a longtime American diplomat who served as the head of policy planning at the State Department in the second half of Powell’s tenure—was a surge skeptic. But Dan Senor—an unofficial member of Romney’s inner circle who had served as a senior adviser and spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq—was a surge supporter, according to sources familiar with the 2008 Romney campaign. In the end, the surge forces won, and Romney never publicly questioned the policy. And, beyond the surge, Romney seemed content to take pages from Bush’s playbook on transforming the Muslim world. The neocons, after all, were the establishment—and Romney was the establishment candidate.
But, sometimes, it was possible to catch a public glimpse from Romney of what sounded like hesitation about the neoconservative worldview. At a debate in September 2007, Romney was asked about Iraq. He gave a rather measured answer in which he said that the surge was “apparently working”—two words that quickly drew a response from McCain. “Governor, the surge is working,” McCain admonished. “The surge is working, sir. It is working.” “That’s just what I said,” Romney replied. But McCain would have none of it. “No, not apparently,” McCain continued. “It’s working.”
Four years later, Romney once again appears ambivalent—this time about Afghanistan. Reiss and Senor, I was told, are again two of the people who have his ear—and again they are split. Reiss tends to emphasize the problems with the local Afghan government, while Senor tends to emphasize that we have to stay until the government has the capacity to defend itself.
Privately, the candidate himself is in the middle. “In January, he goes to Afghanistan and comes away confident in the military strategy of [General David] Petraeus and the progress in clearing and holding the areas that used to be under Taliban control,” says a close ally of Romney who spoke with him right after he returned from the country. “But there was a concern about what sacrifice the Afghanistan government would make for the build part of the strategy.”
The biggest difference between Romney in 2007 on Iraq and Romney in 2011 on Afghanistan has been that, this time, there has been more public evidence of ambivalence. On the one hand, he has blasted Obama for setting an arbitrary deadline for the reduction of troops in Afghanistan. On the other hand, he has also flirted with the idea that it’s time to wrap up the mission and leave. “One lesson we’ve learned in Afghanistan is that Americans cannot fight another nation’s war of independence,” he said at a debate in June. Not surprisingly, these comments raised some eyebrows among supporters of the Afghanistan counterinsurgency. General Jack Keane, a retired Army four-star general and close ally of Petraeus, says Romney’s Afghanistan remarks at the June debate surprised him. “I think he’s uninformed. The unfortunate result of it is that it probably made it easier for the president to make a much larger troop reduction at an accelerated rate in Afghanistan, which the president did,” Keane told me.
Beyond Afghanistan, Romney has been hard to pin down to a single school of foreign policy thought. His campaign told me, when I asked about his ambitious statement from 2007, that Romney thinks “the United States should take a leadership role in assembling the donor and technical resources of international partners—both public and private—to advance stability, modernity, and democracy in the Islamic world.” Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Romney continues to have an ideologically eclectic group of official and unofficial advisers. In addition to Reiss and Senor, the others he listens to on foreign policy are former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey; Jim Talent, a former U.S. senator from Missouri; and Cofer Black, the head of the CIA’s counterterrorist center before and after September 11 and later vice chairman of the controversial security contractor company Blackwater. Talent is quite conservative—he said in 2006 that he would have voted to authorize the Iraq war even knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found—while Black is widely viewed in Washington as a sort of anti-terrorist uber-hawk, thanks in part to his portrayal in The Dark Side by Jane Mayer and Bush at War by Bob Woodward. In the latter book, Black is quoted as saying, “When we’re through with them they will have flies walking across their eyeballs.”
BECAUSE THE ISSUES of the moment all revolve around the Middle East—Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Al Qaeda—there has been all too little discussion during the campaign of other key questions, such as the rise of China and the role of economics in foreign policy. On these issues, there is the intriguing possibility that Texas Governor Rick Perry, should he get into the race, could introduce yet another worldview into the already-complex GOP foreign policy mix. As governor of Texas, Perry has been identified with a sort of business-first approach to foreign affairs. This philosophy, too, could in its own way represent a new challenge to the neocon establishment.
In 2004, Perry enticed Citgo—owned by the Venezuelan government, no friend of the United States—to expand refineries in Corpus Christi and move its corporate headquarters to Houston by putting together a grant and low-interest loan package worth $35 million. Perry also sought to persuade the Chinese telecom giant Huawei to expand its North American headquarters in Texas. Last year, the intelligence community quietly pressed Sprint not to use Huawei components in building a national 4G network, fearing the company’s close ties to the People’s Liberation Army would effectively give the Chinese government a listening post in every cell tower of the new wireless network. On August 18, eight Republican senators sent a letter to Obama administration officials warning that the deal could undermine national security. Sprint eventually complied. But, on October 1 of last year, Perry attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the company’s new headquarters in Plano, Texas. “Huawei has a strong, worldwide reputation as an innovator of quality telecommunications technology, with facilities spread across the globe,” Perry proclaimed.
Dave Carney, a strategist who has been with the governor for 14 years and would play a major role on a presidential campaign, defended these moves when I asked him about them. He said that it’s Washington’s job to vet corporations for national security reasons. “Has the federal government kicked Citgo out of the country?” he asked. “I haven’t seen that.” He made the same argument about Huawei, saying, “If this Chinese company is as evil as has been reported, then the federal government should step in to deal with it.”
In fairness to Perry, the responsibilities of being a governor are very different from the responsibilities of being president. And presidents’ views on foreign policy have a way of morphing once they get into office. Dick Cheney asked Congress to lift sanctions against Iran in the late ’90s when he was the CEO of Halliburton. But, when he became vice president, Cheney was the most steadfast Iran hawk in the Bush administration.
And so, it’s hard to know for sure how Perry or anyone else would conduct themselves once in office. Moreover, it is important not to exaggerate the differences between the major GOP candidates. There are some things they do agree on. All are staunch supporters of Israel. And all seem eager to contrast their own patriotic rhetoric with what they see as Obama’s self-effacing style of speaking about America. Romney captures this idea in his book No Apology, when he writes, “President Obama, always the skillful politician, will throw in compliments about America here and there. But what makes his speeches jump out at his audience are the steady stream of criticisms, put downs, and jabs directed at the nation he was elected to represent and defend.” Pawlenty and Bachmann have both made versions of this argument, and you can expect to hear more of it as the campaign unfolds: In an era in which the Republican Party is trying to figure out what it stands for on the world stage, contempt for Obama is one thing that can still keep it together.
Eli Lake is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 18, 2011, issue of the magazine.