Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was back in the headlines this week—not for any particular wisdom regarding authoritarian regimes and movements she shared with the House Intelligence Committee, but for this:
“I personally owe an apology to now-Senator Romney, because I think that we underestimated what was going on in Russia. I was on the CIA external advisory board, there was no question that less money was being put into Russian language and what was going on in Russia. We had forgotten we’re dealing with a KGB agent. I think he has played a weak hand very well.”
With those words, Albright triggered yet another round of “Mitt Romney was right” stories over his March 2012 claim that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Just as they did after Edward Snowden’s escape to Moscow and Russia’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine and occupation of Crimea, media outlets of all political stripes are once again declaring Romney was prescient about the threat posed by Vladimir Putin. (Among the commentators praising Mitt was the man himself, who took to the airwaves to slam President Obama’s “naivete” and “faulty judgment.”) It’s not just Hot Air, The Daily Caller, and others among the usual suspects on the right demanding apologies to and credit for their vanquished 2012 White House hopeful. Newsweek and ABC News (“Mitt Romney finally gets credit years later for his warnings on Russia”) jumped on the “Romney was wronged” bandwagon, too.
But Secretary Albright need not have apologized, and the media consensus about the “visionary” Mitt Romney should not be giving credit where it is not due. After all, as a presidential candidate in 2008 and again in 2012, then-Gov. Romney compiled a very long list of top threats to the United States, a list that was alternately led by “radical Islamist terror,” Iran, and China. Until President Obama’s supposed “open mic gaffe” on March 26, 2012, Russia was almost an afterthought in Romney’s national security strategy. And as it has turned out, now-Sen. Romney’s sheepish acquiescence to Donald Trump’s coddling of the Putin regime has made a mockery of his supposed clear-eyed, hard-nosed realism on Russia.
To fully appreciate Mitt Romney’s foreign policy follies, it’s worth taking a trip back to his first failed White House run. That walk down memory lane produces a different version of Mitt’s “greatest immediate threat.” During his 2008 presidential pursuit, Romney warned that global Islamic jihadism, and not a revanchist Russia, was the successor to the USSR and Hitler’s Germany. As he explained to the National Review Conservative Institute Summit in January 2007:
“Let me turn to another kind of challenge because those have been domestic challenges in large measure. This is one in relation to our foreign challenges. And that is the challenge of the jihadists – radical, violent Islamists. It’s really this century’s nightmare. It follows in the path of the Nazism and the Soviet Communism that were so devastating to so many of our fellow human beings.”
Just in case there were any doubts, in fall 2007 Mitt Romney released a campaign ad titled “Jihad” conflating all Muslim threats, real or imagined:
It’s this century’s nightmare, Jihadism – violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism. Their goal is to unite the world under a single Jihadist caliphate.
To do that, they must collapse freedom-loving nations like us.
As President, I’ll strengthen our intelligence services. Increase our military by at least 100,000. And monitor the calls Al-Qaeda makes into America. And we can and will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
(It should be noted that for all of his tough talk Mitt Romney, like George W. Bush and John McCain, opposed candidate Barack Obama’s call for unilateral U.S. strikes against Osama bin Laden and other high value al-Qaida targets within Pakistan.)
Which brings us to Mitt Romney’s second No. 1 threat: Iran. When candidate Romney wasn’t pledging to “double Guantanamo,” the Iranian regime in Tehran and its nuclear program were the focus of his fury. Following the lead of his close friend and fellow Boston Consulting Group alumnus Benjamin Netanyahu, Romney in September 2007 demanded that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be brought up on charges of war crimes during his next visit to the United Nations. “If President Ahmadinejad sets foot in the United States,” Romney wrote U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, “he should be handed an indictment under the Genocide Convention.” Earlier that year, Romney led a one-day crusade to push state pension funds to divest their holdings in companies that were doing business with Iran. That effort came to a screeching halt within 24 hours after the AP revealed Mitt’s former employer Bain & Company in fact had such investments. His response?
“This is something for now-forward. I wouldn’t begin to say that people who, in the past, have been doing business with Iran, are subject to the same scrutiny as that which is going on from a prospective basis.”
By the time his 2012 match up with Barack Obama came around, wannabe President Romney was prepared to take military action against Iran without congressional authorization. As he repeatedly boasted during the campaign, “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” As he explained in yet another Wall Street Journal op-ed (“I Won’t Let Iran Get Nukes“):
Si vis pacem, para bellum. That is a Latin phrase, but the ayatollahs will have no trouble understanding its meaning from a Romney administration: If you want peace, prepare for war.
In case there was any question about the priority of the challenge from Tehran, Mitt Romney answered them in his October 2009 piece, “Iran: Biggest Threat Since Soviets“:
The Iranian leadership is the greatest immediate threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before that, Nazi Germany…If we allow Iran under the rule of the mullahs to get a nuclear weapon, it will make the problems America faces today look like a walk in the park.
Still, it wasn’t Iran who posed the greatest threat to what Republican nominee Mitt Romney foresaw as “A New American Century.” In his campaign’s October 7, 2011 national security white paper (“A New American Century: A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals”), that title went to China.
“If you are not willing to stand up to China,” Romney told a GOP debate audience in October 2011, “you are going to get run over by China.” In February 2012, he took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to explain “How I’ll Respond to China’s Rising Power:”
I will never flinch from ensuring that our country is secure. And security in the Pacific means a world in which our economic and military power is second to none. It also means a world in which American values–the values of liberty and opportunity–continue to prevail over those of oppression and authoritarianism.
The sum total of my approach will ensure that this is an American, not a Chinese century. We have much to gain from close relations with a China that is prosperous and free. But we should not fail to recognize that a China that is a prosperous tyranny will increasingly pose problems for us, for its neighbors, and for the entire world.
So, what about Moscow? Where did an aggressive, expansionist Russia rank in Mitt Romney’s pantheon of American adversaries over the years?
In a nutshell, not very high.
In the summer of 2007, Foreign Policy magazine invited the Republican and Democratic presidential contenders to submit their own “Essays for the Presidency.” In his screed titled, “Rising to a New Generation of Global Challenges,” Mitt Romney mentioned Russia only a single time. (In contrast, Iraq merited 16 mentions, Iran five, and Islam or Islamic 10.) That lone call-out occurred only in the context of a discussion of energy independence, which Romney explained “would end our strategic vulnerability to oil shutoffs by nations such as Iran, Russia, and Venezuela and stop sending almost $1 billion a day to other oil-producing nations, some of which use the money against us.”
Heading into his second attempt for the White House, Mitt Romney’s main contribution to the discussion of U.S. policy toward Moscow was in his withering opposition of the new START Treaty. With the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) set to expire in December 2009, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev began new negotiations that April with an eye toward cementing new limits on offensive nuclear weapons. Signed by the two presidents in May 2010, the new START treaty ratified by the Senate 71-26 that December. Its caps on deployed missiles and bombers (700) and warheads (1,550) enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
But not from Mitt Romney. Anxious to bolster his hard-liner bona fides with GOP primary voters in the run-up to his 2012 quest, Romney chose grandstanding over substance from the START. As Fred Kaplan and others documented, Romney’s critique was riddled with mistakes and misunderstandings. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation called him “lost on weapons policy.” Kaplan concluded simply, “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and—let’s not mince words—thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty.”
Heading into the 2012 Republican primaries, then, Russia was on the back burner for Team Romney. In its October 2011 white paper, Russia was relegated to last place in the threats faced by “America in a Troubled World.” In the introduction, Russia featured in one platitude-filled paragraph:
Whoever takes the oath of office in January of 2013 will need to grapple with a bewildering array of threats and opportunities. At one end of the spectrum are the traditional problems of statecraft. Powerful countries such as China and Russia are growing in strength and seeking their place in the sun. Their economic success and rising power could contribute significantly to the health of an international system built on economic and political freedom. But it also could help unravel such a system. The authoritarian character of China and Russia already propels those countries to engage in behavior that undermines international security. Checking their harmful ambitions while promoting their transformation into decent and democratic political actors is a primary challenge facing any American leader.
So it was that Russia was largely off Mitt Romney’s radar until March 26, 2012. That’s when everything, especially Romney’s talking points, suddenly changed. That’s when an open microphone gave the Republican a new opportunity, if not a new foreign policy vision.
March 26, 2012 is the day President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made a joint appearance before reporters in Seoul, South Korea. After their statements reflecting the continued gap between the U.S. and Russia on the deployment of an American missile defense system, an open microphone caught this exchange between the two leaders. As the Washington Post relayed:
In an unscripted moment picked up by camera crews, the American president was more blunt: Let me get reelected first, he said; then I’ll have a better chance of making something happen.
“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama can be heard telling Medvedev, apparently referring to incoming Russian president — and outgoing prime minister — Vladimir Putin.
“Yeah, I understand,” Medvedev replies, according to an account relayed by an ABC News producer, who said she viewed a recording of the discussion made by a Russian camera crew. “I understand your message about space. Space for you . . .”
“This is my last election,” Obama interjects. “After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Medvedev, who last week demanded written proof that Russia is not the intended target of U.S. missile defense efforts, responded agreeably.
“I understand,” he told the U.S. president. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” [Emphasis mine.]
Because 2012 was an election year in both countries, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes explained afterwards, “it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough.” The next day, Obama himself reiterated that point, stating the obvious point that “the only way I get this stuff done is If I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support and frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.” As David Corn pointed out the next day, one need only look at the START ratification process to understand why:
But the Romneyites—and much of the reporters and commentators who have covered the so-called hot-mic gaffe—have missed the context: Obama’s 2010 fight to ratify the New START treaty…a tale of Republican recalcitrance that nearly upended decades of bipartisan arms control policy.
For Mitt Romney and his allies, it was an opportunity to completely upend the election of 2012. So, within hours of the words leaving Barack Obama’s lips, for Romney Russia was suddenly now national security priority No. 1.
Just as he did after the Benghazi tragedy that September, Gov. Romney accused President Obama of making common cause with America’s adversaries. Appearing on conservative host Hugh Hewitt’s radio show that same day, Romney branded Obama “a president who continues to try and appease and accommodate, and believes that the best interests of America are to bow to the interests of Russia.” Despite acknowledging that the Russians “don’t represent a military threat to us at the present,” he further told Hewitt’s audience:
“I hope the American people understand that what we heard from the President is revealing about his character in terms of what he tells the American people and revealing about his direction and sentiment with regards to Russian, which is after all our number one geopolitical foe.”
And so a talking point was born. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that same night, Romney explained why he newly believed “Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let’s say, Iran or China or North Korea.”
“These are very unfortunate developments and if he’s planning on doing more and suggest to Russia that he has things he’s willing to do with them he’s not willing to tell the American people, this is to Russia this is without question our number one geopolitical foe, they fight every cause for the world’s worst actors, the idea that he has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.”
Ultimately, of course, Barack Obama won the election of 2012, dispatching Romney’s sound bite during the final presidential debate by joking that the 1980s are calling “and want their foreign policy back.” But the rest is not, as they usually say, history.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats predicted that the pro-Western success in Kiev after the miracle at Maidan would trigger Russian intervention in Ukraine. And if Mitt Romney or other Republicans had any issue with Putin’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, neither he nor they were protesting about it.
After all, in 2016 Mitt Romney suggested that Donald Trump—the same man whose endorsement he welcomed in 2012—was a bigot and a tax cheat. That March, Romney called him “a phony, a fraud” whose “promises are worthless.” Yet despite candidate Trump’s threats to lead the United States out of NATO and to refuse to live up to American mutual defense obligations to NATO allies in Eastern Europe, Gov. Romney tried—and failed—to become his secretary of state. After Americans learned in January 2017 of the U.S. intelligence agencies’ unanimous conclusion that Putin’s Russia interfered in the 2016 election on Donald Trump’s behalf, Gov. Romney did not call for punishment and countermeasures. And the revelations that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed any bipartisan statement on Russian meddling in fall 2016 did not result in any condemnation from Mitt.
To his credit, Senate candidate Romney blasted Trump’s performance at his June summit with Vladimir Putin. declaring “President Trump’s decision to side with Putin over American intelligence agencies is disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles.” (Romney later said that Trump’s refusal to keep notes of or allow other American personnel into his meeting with Putin was “inappropriate.”) Nevertheless, in his first big Senate vote on Russian sanctions, Eli Lake lamented on Jan. 17 that “Mitt Romney Fails His First Test on Russia” by supporting Trump’s move to ease sanctions on Putin-allied oligarch Oleg Deripaska. As former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul tweeted:
Im really surprised that @MittRomney voted against keeping sanctions on these Russian companies. I hope someone will ask him how his vote = being tough on Russia.
As Lake put it, “The senator declined to join the 11 other members of his party, a party whose 2012 presidential nominee memorably warned that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” adding. “I wonder what happened to him.”
What happened is what always happens with Mitt Romney: He never misses an opportunity to be an opportunist. As Brian Beutler rightly concluded after Madeleine Albright’s unnecessary apology to him on Tuesday:
She should not have done this. Romney was wrong at the time and, to the extent he was prescient, it was about the betrayal of this and other countries by his own party and their right wing counterparts abroad–betrayals that he either did not foresee or is complicit in. https://t.co/v8H19xhtlf
— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) February 27, 2019
Which is exactly right. Simply put, Mitt Romney doesn’t deserve apologies or credit over Russia because he was wrong then and he’s wrong now. With a GDP roughly equal to that of the United States, a rapidly expanding and technologically advancing military, and economic and foreign policy ambitions that make it a U.S. competitor worldwide, China is the single greatest threat to American global hegemony. As dangerous as Putin’s Russia is (and despite recent Gallup polling on the subject), only China presents a total challenge to American prosperity and national security. This was true in 2012 and it’s true today. And Mitt Romney knows it, too. Or he did, until he decided in March 2012 to make a hot take on a hot mic the centerpiece of his foreign policy.