Think you’ve heard the last from Mitt Romney after he bowed out from running for president for a third consecutive cycle? Think again. The 2012 GOP presidential nominee and the former governor of Massachusetts is by far a spent figure in American politics – he’s making his voice known on the op-ed pages of America, and he is a key political powerbroker in determining which Republican presidential hopeful for 2016 will get his endorsement, his former campaign staff, and his hefty monetary resources.
Romney’s stature and appeal across the country have grown since he lost the election to President Barack Obama in November 2012. He’s undoubtedly more popular today than he was when he was campaigning for the presidency. The 2014 Netflix documentary Mitt softened his image beyond the robotic, cut-throat corporate man label Obama’s campaign successfully stuck to him, and his appeal within the Republican Party has gotten stronger as Obama’s approval ratings have gotten weaker. Like it or not, Mitt Romney is now playing the role of the elder in the Republican Party, a figure that other presidential hopefuls look up to for support, advice, and encouragement.
This is why his piece on Iran in USA Today last Friday is so discouraging. It reeks of ideology and cherishes idealism over reality and pragmatism at a time when Republicans are already suffering from the stereotype of being the “Party of No.” If Romney’s view towards this critical national security issue are taken as doctrine within the Republican Party, it will enable Democrats like Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Harry Reid to continue bashing the party as a bunch of obstructionists and absolutists who are too dogmatic to engage in “grey-zone” diplomacy.
Mitt Romney’s views on Iran’s nuclear program are well known, and they have been consistent for years. Indeed, whenever foreign policy came up during the 2012 campaign, Romney’s default position was to quickly call attention to an Obama administration Iran policy that he categorized as feckless and weak. “The United States cannot afford to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons,” Romney wrote in a March 2012 Washington Post op-ed. “Yet under Barack Obama, that is the course we are on.”
Those words haven’t changed at all over the last three years, despite the fact that there are very few alternatives to the negotiated course that Obama has taken. Romney’s position remains the same: Iran should not have any nuclear weapons capability whatsoever; the genocidal and irrational mullah’s cannot be trusted with even a rudimentary or token uranium enrichment program; and the economic sanctions that the United States and the international community have constructed against Iran should not be relaxed until Ayatollah Ali Khamenei completely buckles to the demand of Washington and Europe. In short: Any other policy is a dangerous act of appeasement that could potentially lead the Middle Eastern region into a nuclear tinderbox.
So what would Romney do if he was leading the diplomacy? Easy: There wouldn’t be any diplomacy at all. Indeed, Romney would do exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocated in front of the U.S. Congress earlier this month: “Walk away from a Swiss-cheese agreement; institute even more punitive and crippling sanctions than have been imposed; and remove those sanctions only when Iran agrees to dismantle its nuclear enrichment capability and to submit to unrestricted inspections.”
This prescription wouldn’t be a problem if it was achievable, but history proves that it’s beyond the arc of the possible. The Bush administration, for instance, had this exact same policy throughout its eight years in the White House. The result: an exponential increase of Iranian enrichment capacity, from a few hundred centrifuges to thousands upon thousands of machines.
One could argue that Mitt Romney’s opinion is irrelevant at this point. He lost badly in a presidential election that many Republican donors and party operatives believed he should have won, and his career in politics is effectively over, so why should we care? Well, its actually pretty simple: Romney’s opinion still carries a lot of weight within the Republican Party, and presumptive GOP upstarts like Marco Rubio are tapping into his knowledge base. Romney’s aversion to diplomacy in a world that is far more grey than black and white is troubling because there’s a high likelihood that it will rub off on the younger generation of Republican leaders who need to demonstrate a degree of deftness if they have any chance in persuading Americans that they are commander-in-chief material (for evidence of this, one need only look at a short interview Marco Rubio gave to the Associated Press, in which he stated that the only Iranian nuclear deal he would support is one that required complete dismantlement of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure). The “my way or the highway” approach may sound good during a campaign, but it doesn’t serve that same person well in the Oval Office.
In the world of foreign policy, compromising to get the best deal possible is sometimes a greater exhibition of strength than holding out and hoping that your advisory will capitulate. Romney still doesn’t seem to grasp that notion.
Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geopolitical consulting firm specializing in foreign policy and national security trends for clients worldwide. He is also a contributor to the Atlantic Council, a leading national security think tank located in Washington, D.C.