Dozens of subtle position papers flow through Mitt Romney's policy shop, but they seem to have little influence on his hawkish-sounding and content-thin pronouncements, writes David E. Sanger for the New York Times.
During the Republican primary debates in January, whenwas still trying to outmaneuver the challengers who were questioning his conservative bona fides, he made a declaration about Afghanistan that led a faction of his foreign policy advisers to shake their heads in wonderment.
"We should not negotiate with the Taliban," the former Massachusetts governor declared, just as diplomats dispatched by the president were in Qatar trying to get those negotiations going. "We should defeat the Taliban." In case anyone missed his meaning, he drove home the point, saying the best strategy was, "We go anywhere they are and we kill them."
Set aside for the moment that many of Mr. Romney's supporters and foreign policy advisers argue that after a decade at war, the only option is a political settlement, which means talking to some elements of the Taliban. Stephen Hadley, the former national security adviser to George W. Bush, has argued this "would not — as some have suggested — constitute 'surrender' to America's enemies." A co-chairman of Mr. Romney's working group on Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Shinn, who also served Mr. Bush, was co-author of perhaps the best single unclassified document on the complexities of those negotiations, entitled "Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer." It argued that a negotiated deal would "obviously be desirable" if elements of the Taliban could be persuaded to renounce violence and take "some role in Afghan governance short of total control."
It was just one example of what Mr. Romney's advisers call a perplexing pattern: Dozens of subtle position papers flow through the candidate's policy shop and yet seem to have little influence on Mr. Romney's hawkish-sounding pronouncements, on everything from war to nuclear proliferation to the trade-offs in dealing with. In the Afghanistan case, "none of us could quite figure out what he was advocating," one of Mr. Romney's advisers said. He insisted on anonymity — as did a half-dozen others interviewed over the past two weeks — because the Romney campaign has banned any discussion of the process by which the candidate formulates his positions.