GOP sees the world anew

Times Staff Writer

Last week, after Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee criticized the Bush administration for an “arrogant bunker mentality” toward the world, rival Mitt Romney rose to George W. Bush’s defense. “Mike Huckabee owes the president an apology,” Romney said.

But Romney too has criticized the Bush administration, saying the occupation of Iraq was “underplanned, understaffed [and] under-managed,” resulting in “a mess.”

Other GOP candidates have also found things to dislike in Bush’s foreign policy: Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has dismissed the president’s campaign for democracy in the Muslim world as naive and opposed his drive to establish a Palestinian state. Sen. John McCain of Arizona thinks Bush hasn’t sent enough troops to Iraq and has been too easy on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.


One by one, the Republican candidates have been sketching out the lines of a post-Bush foreign policy. Their prescriptions are not identical, and they have been careful to avoid antagonizing Bush loyalists in the GOP base. But all four have edged away from the most ambitious part of Bush’s worldview -- the idea that the main goal of U.S. foreign policy should be spreading democracy overseas.

“Republicans are drifting back to a less-exuberant position on global intervention -- for obvious reasons,” said Peter Rodman, a former Bush administration official who supports McCain.

“They’re saying: ‘I’m for all the things in the Bush policy that you liked and that worked -- and as for the other things, I’ll do those differently,’ ” said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s a very tricky task. . . . On the one hand, they want to put some distance between themselves and the president because he isn’t very popular. But he is popular among the Republican electorate that they are appealing to now, in the primary campaign. It’s like walking between raindrops.”

All of the leading GOP candidates support the most visible planks of Bush’s foreign policy: continuing the war in Iraq, tightening sanctions on Iran and pursuing terrorists in every corner of the globe. But all have said -- at least in tone and style -- they would approach the world differently than Bush.

Former Govs. Romney of Massachusetts and Huckabee of Arkansas have said they would put more emphasis on diplomacy; Giuliani and McCain would be more tough-minded.

The candidates rarely invoke the president’s name on the campaign trail, let alone echo his 2005 declaration that the “ultimate goal” of American diplomacy is “ending tyranny in our world.”

“Democracy promotion was uniquely Bush’s contribution [to foreign policy], and they’ve backed off it,” said Mandelbaum, author of the book “Democracy’s Good Name.” “But then, Bush is no longer a democracy promoter in the sense that he was in 2005. That’s partly a victim of Iraq, partly a victim of the recalcitrance of the Arab world, partly a victim of our need for oil from places like Saudi Arabia.”

Several Republican contenders have distanced themselves from the administration’s new drive for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, although that may be a product of election-year politics as much as diplomatic vision. “It’s important to me that we not in any way place pressure on Israel,” Romney told the Jerusalem Post last month.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, another Republican candidate, has denounced Bush roundly for “trying to remake the Middle East in our image.” He has called for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and other countries, a position that has won support from only a minority of Republican voters, according to polls.

Huckabee supported Bush’s decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and to step up the military offensive in Baghdad. But he has criticized the administration on other grounds.

“American foreign policy needs to change its tone and its attitude,” he wrote in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine. “The Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad.”

Huckabee called for more diplomatic conversations with hostile countries such as Iran. “When one stops talking to a parent or a friend, differences cannot be resolved and relationships cannot move forward. The same is true for countries,” he wrote.

And he appeared to put some blame on the White House for the increasing tension between Washington and Tehran: “After President Bush included Iran in the ‘axis of evil,’ everything went downhill fast,” he said, referring to a Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.

Bush, asked at a news conference last week about Huckabee’s remarks, declined to comment. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has helped nudge the Bush administration into a greater reliance on diplomacy, said: “The idea that somehow this is a go-it-alone policy is just simply ludicrous.”

Huckabee has not backed down. “His principal statement was: ‘Let’s work on engagement,’ and he thinks there’s more we can do there,” said Huckabee’s main foreign policy advisor, former Treasury Department official J. French Hill, who helped draft the magazine article. “His comment about the administration was not directed at President Bush.”

Until Huckabee spoke out, Romney had been the Republican candidate who seemed most intent on gingerly establishing a little distance from the administration. U.S. diplomacy in the Muslim world, Romney said, had been inadequate, with “nowhere near the degree of attention, resources and commitment necessary.” He initially took a wait-and-see position on the success of the “surge” of U.S. military forces in Iraq, only to draw criticism from McCain and others for his hesitance.

At a debate this month, Romney joined most of the other GOP candidates in declaring the buildup a success. And he responded sharply to Huckabee’s apostasy, issuing a statement that compared Huckabee to White House hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Then Romney said: “We can be thankful that President Bush has kept us safe.”

He said his own critique was not as bad as Huckabee having called Bush policy arrogant.

Still, Romney’s top foreign policy advisor, former State Department official Steven Schrage, was willing to point out areas in which Romney differs from Bush.

Like Bush, Romney “talks about government reform and promoting freedom . . . but it’s not purely about elections,” Schrage said in an interview. “It’s also different from the Bush approach in that he emphasizes the need to multi-lateralize this . . . to have a summit of nations [to] craft a strategy and a shared vision on how to move forward.

“He’s for strengthening diplomacy. There is sometimes a stereotypical view that Republicans are only about military strength, but he is for military strength and diplomatic strength as well.”

By contrast, Giuliani has made a point of sounding hawkish. “I think the American people, in November 2008, are going to select the person they think is strongest to defend America against Islamic terrorism,” he has said. “We have to be on the offense.”

Most GOP candidates would be willing to use military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But for Giuliani, the vow is not a threat, “but a promise.”

And Giuliani has said that the pursuit of democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East may need to wait until security and stability are achieved. “You can’t have democracy when people are being killed,” he said in a television interview earlier this year.

McCain, who ran against Bush for the 2000 Republican nomination, long has been a critic of elements of the president’s foreign and military strategies. But he was also one of the strongest proponents of Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq.

He has implicitly criticized Bush by continuing to call for more bipartisanship in foreign policymaking. “I can reach across the aisle,” he said in a television interview last week. “You’ve got to increase the level of communications because there’s such skepticism out there.”

McCain has said he thinks Bush has been too friendly with Putin: “It’s time we got a little tough. I looked into Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters: a K, a G and a B” -- references to the former Soviet intelligence agency and Bush’s one-time avowal that he had glimpsed Putin’s soul.

Of the leading Republicans, McCain has the longest record as a proponent of U.S. efforts to promote democracy overseas, a goal he calls “inseparable from the long term security of the United States.” But he too has acknowledged that bringing democracy to the Middle East has turned out to be more difficult than some expected.

Rodman, who has worked as a foreign policy aide in five GOP administrations, said the differences were real -- but far smaller than the gulf between the Republican and Democratic hopefuls, the latter of whom all have pressed for a withdrawal from Iraq as soon as practicable.

“The Republican candidates are for the most part supporting the war in Iraq, and that’s an important consensus,” he said. “The differences have been mostly about implementation.”

The Bush administration, Rodman said, was already conducting a more moderate foreign policy: “The next administration will need to show nuance and not be so exuberant. But that’s where we are already.”