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Talent says Romney doesn't 'shoot first, aim later' on foreign policy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2012 - WASHINGTON – In his book “No Apology,” GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney acknowledges “the aptly named” Jim Talent, the former Missouri senator who “kindly contributed policy thinking and insights, as he has done for me many times before.”

And Talent, a senior adviser on security issues, is taking a “no apology” stance when he defends Romney for statements – such last week's critique of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies when protests raged at U.S. diplomatic posts – that have led to sharp criticism of the nominee.

“The president thinks that a strong response is provocative. And the opposite is the truth: it’s the weak response that’s provocative,” Talent said in an interview. “That’s the point Gov. Romney was making, and the point he’s made every time he’s given a major intervention, statement or speech on foreign policy.”

Talent, regarded by insiders as a contender for a Cabinet-rank position if Romney wins the election, offers no apologies for being “involved in discussions about what was happening and what [Romney] ought to propose” during last week’s violent protests in Libya and Egypt .

And Talent dismisses criticism of the candidate’s response by a wide range of pundits and by President Barack Obama, who told an interviewer that Romney “seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”

Quite the opposite, Talent says, explaining that Romney has always sought to “link events to the broader picture” and in consistently asserting that the proper stance, in the long run, is to achieve peace by projecting strength.

“The potential for conflict is growing around the world and a big part of the reason is a vacuum of American leadership and influence,” said Talent. He has heard Romney “make that point in the context of the Pacific, Russia, Latin America, and the Middle East.”

Talent, a part-time “distinguished fellow” at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, also takes issue with critics such as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who assert that neo-conservatives – including some who helped convince President George W. Bush to launch the Iraq war – are controlling Romney’s foreign policy.

“I haven’t, in our conversations, found those kind of [neocon] considerations intruding,” said Talent, adding that he doesn’t see himself as a neocon or "part of any camp” of policy strategists. “Romney is very interested in foreign policy. There’s a reason why his book begins with foreign policy. He’s pretty hands on, and very active.”

Talent was known as a wonkish, issues-oriented lawmaker when he served on the Armed Services Committees on both sides of the Capitol – representing Missouri in the U.S. Senate from 2002-06 and St. Louis County's 2nd congressional district in the U.S. House from 1993-2001. He describes himself as primarily a security and defense adviser to Romney, although he is also consulted on some aspects of foreign affairs as it relates to security.

“The two are obviously interconnected. But my emphasis has always been more on the defense side of things,” Talent told the Beacon.

But the campaign has also deployed Talent on other types of missions, including his public criticism of Romney rivals like Newt Gingrich during the GOP primary season, his pep talks to Missouri and other states' delegates during the Republican convention in Tampa, and even a 15-minute session in the press center's "Google Hangout" -- where he did a live Internet interview and answered questions from Republican activists in his home state.

“We give advice and help out wherever we can add the most value," Talent said. "I do a lot of interviews on issues that aren’t related to national security – where I think I can be helpful and where the campaign agrees.”

Defending Romney

While Talent says Romney takes a keen interest in foreign policy, a number of critics – ranging from the far left to the far right – recently have taken aim at some of the candidate’s stances or statements. And some political analysts contend that recent "unforced errors" -- in foreign policy and other areas -- have damaged the candidate, as the Washington Post reported today.

But Talent, playing the role of the good soldier, consistently defends Romney:  

-- When Romney traveled to London this summer to meet with the Prime Minister and other British leaders, he miffed some Brits by implying that their Olympic security might be flawed. At the Democratic Convention, Obama taunted Romney by declaring: “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

Talent, who was with Romney on the London trip, said much of the media coverage of the Olympics remark was “imbalanced” and “politicized.” “If you look at the statements that [Romney] made over there about the Olympics – which is, of course, a relatively small thing – most of what he said was very supportive of them,” said Talent.

“He had great discussions with British leaders of all parties. And then, when he went to Jerusalem and Poland, he spoke to great crowds.” Talent said Romney reassured those countries that he “would remain faithful to the pillars of what’s been our bipartisan foreign policy” since World War II.

“Except for the Obama administration and I think the Carter administration, you’ve seen presidents of both parties sustain these basic foundations. ... That will reduce conflict by restoring a sense of order and confidence around the world.”

-- Another comment that came under attack was Romney’s reference to Russia as this country’s top geopolitical foe, rather than citing a terrorist organization such as al Qaeda or a powerful communist nation like China. In his convention speech, Obama said “you don’t call Russia our number-one enemy ... unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.”

Talent thinks Romney is “absolutely” right about Russia, and isn’t in any warp at all. “The Russians have supported Syria; they have systematically obstructed attempts of the international community to control Iran; they invaded Georgia and are still there. … And they have tried to use energy to leverage and blackmail Europe.”

Talent adds: “If that isn’t a pretty consistent geopolitical foe, I don’t know what is. It’s very clear that Russia under [President Vladimir] Putin – and a lot of this has to do with his leadership – has reached outside of its traditional sphere of concern to obstruct efforts at peace.” He suggests that “being strong in dealing with the Russians is what will lead to a more stable relationship and, one hopes, to greater partnership on issues that we can work together on.”

Putin, acknowledging Romney’s hard-line stance, recently told a Russian publication that it would make him take a tougher stand against a missile defense system in Europe. But Talent said Romney believes “we absolutely have to deploy a multi-layered missile defense as soon as possible. I think that would greatly contribute to peace.”

It’s no coincidence that more emphasis on missile defense is recommended in the 2012 Republican platform’s “American Exceptionalism” chapter, which was written by a subcommittee co-chaired by Talent. [The GOP platform is at: www.scribd.com/doc/104221532/2012-Gop-Platform ] That security and foreign policy part of the platform, reflecting Romney’s positions, also calls for strengthening the nation’s nuclear arsenal and avoiding deep cuts in Pentagon spending.

In general, Talent describes the “American Exceptionalism” chapter as a “peace through strength” platform that echoes some of the themes long advocated by President Ronald Reagan, notably maintaining a strong military and economy and taking a “trust but verify” attitude to arms control and other negotiations with nations like Russia.

Talent’s often hawkish positions on security issues also have been expressed in his testimony over the past couple of years to congressional committees on topics ranging from the defense budget to vice chairman of a bipartisan research group on weapons of mass destruction, Talent also has warned that the nation’s preparations against such “asymmetrical attacks” are inadequate.

-- On China, Democratic critics have accused Romney of talking tough about punishing China for unfair trade and currency manipulation, yet having a personal business history of running a management firm that bought U.S. companies that outsourced some jobs.

On Monday, for example, Obama told a crowd in Ohio that Romney has been “claiming he’s going to roll up his sleeves and he’s going take the fight to China.” The president added that “you can’t stand up to China when all you’ve done is send them our jobs.”

But Romney fired back, accusing Obama – whose administration filed a new auto-parts trade case against Beijing on Monday – of a political stunt that was “too little, too late” to curb China’s unfair trade practices. His campaign said fact-checkers found no evidence that Romney, when he led Bain Capital, was directly involved in shipping jobs overseas.

Talent says that Romney’s criticisms of Chinese currency manipulation and other trade practices are straightforward, while the Obama administration has failed to lead because it has not been upfront in acknowledging the problems.

“The Chinese have been manipulating their currency. Everybody’s said it, on both sides of the aisle. But [the administration] doesn’t want to say so publicly,” Talent said. “The Chinese are entitled to conclude that, if we don’t care about the issue even enough to tell the truth about it, then why should they change what they’re doing?”

“So the first thing you do is just tell the truth about what they’re doing. Then you may be able to work with them on a solution.”

Debates, Cabinet possibility

Arguing that Romney should be given more credit for his security and foreign policy stances, Talent said he is looking forward to the Romney-Obama debates in October -- including the final debate, which will focus on international issues.

Romney “spent several days” preparing for the debates “and I’m sure he’ll prepare more,” said Talent. “We really need to focus on these issues as a country. And that [foreign policy] debate is going to be an opportunity.”

Talent describes Romney as “a man with a lot of ideas. He’s done a lot of thinking over the years” -- on a wide range of issues. “One of the biggest things that I think is laughable is the idea that Romney hasn’t proposed enough detail for what he wants to do." 

Talent tends to downplay his own role, saying Romney gets advice “on a lot of different areas, and there’s a lot of people he’s met over the years who he admires.” Romney does not have one particular “go-to person in this area," Talent adds. "He likes to hear a broad range of views and then he decides what he’s going to do.”

Last week, for example, the foreign policy adviser who was the most out front to the media in explaining Romney’s views on the Middle East was Richard S. Williamson, a Chicago Republican with extensive foreign-policy and State Department expertise who earlier had run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1992 against Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun.

“I have enormous respect for Ambassador Williamson, and so does Gov. Romney,” Talent said. “Rich is a very good communicator. And I think, at this stage of the campaign, that’s obviously who you want up front,” talking with the national media. But Talent said Williamson is among several key advisers on foreign and security affairs.

While Talent – who has been advising Romney for years – is often mentioned as a potential Secretary of Defense or Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security or a high White House post in a Romney administration, he told the Beacon that he has “had no discussions with [Romney] on that. Everybody is focused on the election. And that’s what’s appropriate.”

As for Romney’s presidential transition team, which has been led since June by former Utah Gov. and HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, Talent said he has merely “some advisory capacity there, because there is a connection – and has to be – between the policies of the campaign and the policies that would be implemented if Gov. Romney wins.”

But the campaign and transition efforts operate on separate tracks, “to the extent possible,” Talent said. “We’re not talking a lot about it because it’s not appropriate.”

Among the Missouri leaders who think Talent brings a lot to the Romney campaign is state Auditor Tom Schweich, who has foreign policy experience as a former chief of staff to three U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations and, later, as acting assistant secretary of state at the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. 

In an interview, Schweich said Talent provides “well-researched, high-quality advice to Gov. Romney on a wide array of foreign policy topics. He is not emotional or overly political in his advice. His advice is based entirely on his encyclopedic knowledge of foreign policy and recognition of what things are best for this country.”

From his dealings with Talent, Schweich called him “a very good adviser because he’s so well versed in the facts and has so much information about what’s going on the in the world. And he’s good at synthesizing those facts into effective ideas for a coherent foreign policy.”