Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address offered the clearest articulation yet of his relationship to George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, offering a vision distinctly shaped by Bush's views, but tempered by difficult lessons of 11 years of American war in the Muslim world.
Bush’s foreign policy legacy, at a low when he departed from office in the throes of an unpopular occupation of Iraq and deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, is in the early stages of a rehabilitation, at least in some circles. Bush’s defenders see the Arab Spring as the outcome of his belief in democracy in the region and, some argue, his invasion of Iraq — a notion most of the the regional leaders of the Arab Spring reject. And they note that his failures to resolve the standoff between Israel and the Palestinian leadership was followed by Obama’s similar failure, while Obama has unexpectedly embraced some of Bush's more muscular national security tools.
But it was Romney's speech, and its echoes of the Freedom Agenda, that drew rave reviews from some of the leading avatars and supporters of the clear and combative foreign policy of Bush’s first term.
“Terrific, comprehensive speech by Gov. Romney,” Bush’s first term Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted “He knows America's role in the world should be as a leader not as a spectator.”
Romney’s speech offers a new Republican articulation of the Bush doctrine of moral clarity, wielded — as Romney said — “wisely, with solemnity and without false pride” to “make the world better—not perfect, but better.”
“What's not to like?” asked Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, a leading foreign policy hawk and backer of Bush’s war in Iraq, who called the speech “kinder, gentler neocon.”
Kristol’s fellow travelers on the neoconservative right were ebullient.
“Kristol could have written it himself,” said Michael Goldfarb, an aide to Senator John McCain’s 2008 campaign who now chairs the conservative Center for American Freedom. “Strong on defense, strong on foreign involvement and aid, strong (and courageous) on Afghanistan and Iraq.
“For all the talk about fissures in the party — the [Project for a New American Century] guys are the ones who will be toasting the Republican candidate tonight,” he said, referring to a group that pushed in the 1990s for, among other things, an invasion of Iraq.
A range of leading Bush Administration foreign policy figures also embraced the speech.
“Mitt Romney understands that the best way to preserve international peace and security is for America to lead from the front,” said former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a figure who never entirely shared the neoconservative worldview. "President Obama believes that American strength is provocative, that we are too much in the world, and that a U.S. recessional is necessary and appropriate. This is exactly opposite of what we need. It is not our strength that is provocative, but our weakness, which our adversaries worldwide interpret to mean it is safe to challenge us. We need to reverse this dangerous American decline, and return to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of ‘peace through strength.’ It has worked throughout our history, and it will work again under President Romney.”
Jamie Fly, who served in the Pentagon and National Security Council in the second Bush term and now heads the Foreign Policy Initiative, praised Romney for making clear that “the answer is not to lead from but to be every clear.
Fly said he heard “hints” of Bush’s Freedom Agenda rhetoric in Romney’s speech, “but any time the governor ventures that sort of territory, it is tempered by recent events.”
Romney was “also realistic about the fact that ere are other forces at play, whether it’s Islamism or violent terrorism,” he said.
Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith told BuzzFeed that he viewed Romney's "good speech" as a return less to Bush than to "mainstream themes of American national security policy."
In particular, he said, he appreciated that Romney had returned ideas and ideology to the center of foreign policy.
"Obama has redefined the problem [of terrorism] so that the definition of the enemy is organizational and not ideological," he said. "Romney to his credit made it an important part of his speech."
Danielle Pletka, a former Republican Senate staffer who is now vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, also told BuzzFeed she viewed the speech less as a reiteration of the Freedom Agenda than simply as a step back toward the right.
“It felt like a reversal of the retreat that we've been seeing for the past few years,” she said. “It didn't feel like he wanted to be too forward-leaning, but rather forward-leaning enough to deter our enemies and support our friends.”
Bush’s foreign policy legacy remains unpopular, however, and other former Bush Administration officials who said privately that they admire Romney bit their tongues for fear of doing him damage with their praise.
“I thought it was a terrific speech and that it was Bush-like,” said one former top Bush foreign policy aide in an email explaining his decision not to comment. “But my saying that wont help him!”
This piece has been updated with comments from Douglas Feith.