Foreign Policy: Who Has Romney's Ear?

Michael Hirsh

Editors' Note: This story was updated to reflect that Alex Wong's foreign-policy experience includes time at the State Department.

To hear some advisers tell it, the Romney campaign is really Romney Inc., a smoothly-run organization that efficiently funnels the views of a vast array of foreign-policy advisers through a few key coordinators who brief the candidate. This is a positive contrast to the last time Mitt Romney ran in 2008. “The last time, it was me, the governor, and five other people sitting around a table. We didn’t do that well,” says Mitchell Reiss, the former head of policy planning at the State Department who is one of a wide selection of advisers Romney brought on from the Bush administration. "Now it’s a $500 million operation ... and there so many more people who have expertise.”

But other advisers inside the campaign say this expertise is still not being well employed, which may be one reason Romney appeared so amateurish during his recent gaffe-strewn tour through Britain, Israel, and Poland. According to one Romney adviser who would discuss the internal dynamics of the campaign only on condition of anonymity, there is an “experience gap” between the inner circle of people who talk to Romney directly and the many on the outside who have to funnel their views through that inner circle, especially through the young and untested foreign-policy coordinator, Alex Wong.

“A lot of people with experience in government are not in the inner circle,” says this adviser. Some of the former government officials who are nominally on Romney’s foreign-policy advisory teams say they haven’t briefed the candidate personally since 2011. Other advisers speak out or write op-eds on their own, leading to the perception that there are publicly-aired disputes inside the campaign when in truth few of these advisers are actually in contact with Romney.

The lingering sense that Romney’s foreign-policy views remain somewhat inchoate could affect not only voters’ calculations but also possibly those of the Israelis, who are believed to be contemplating whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before the election. While Romney took a hard line in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself on his trip—and he is closer to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is said to favor a strike, than Obama is--he went out of his way to avoid endorsing an Israeli strike.

The disarray feeds Israeli worries about waiting. “There is a belief that whether Obama or Romney wins, everything is more complicated” for the Israelis if they wait, says David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace. “If Romney wins, he needs to get inaugurated, name staff, get them confirmed, and do policy reviews. That could take them till next fall,” which may well be beyond the Israeli window for action against Iran’s mountain nuclear site at Fordow, which is under construction.

Meanwhile, however, the Israelis—who are engaged in their own intense debate about whether to strike—hear a cacophony of voices in the Romney camp. “We’ve got a very big tent. You’ve got a lot of different voices,” concedes another Romney adviser. “The debate isn’t ‘Gee, can we live with an Iranian nuclear weapon,’ it’s how you structure a response.” Even so, with Romney playing to his conservative base, “there hasn’t been a big conversation of how much would he put back into a diplomatic effort” with Iran, the first adviser says.

The Romney foreign-policy inner circle starts with Wong, who bears the expansive title of “director of foreign, defense, and judicial policy” and who conducts the weekly conference call with advisers. Wong is a 2007 Harvard Law School graduate and a former associate at the law firm of Covington & Burling, but his credentials as a foreign-policy expert are thin at best, amounting to a summer internship at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in 2005 and service as a "rule of law" adviser on Iraq at the State Department from 2007 to 2009. The circle also appears to include Dan Senor, the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq who co-wrote a 2009 book on Israel’s entrepreneurial culture, Start-Up Nation, which was cited by Romney during much- criticized remarks he made at a Jewish fundraiser in July appearing to denigrate Palestinians. Senor, who like Romney is a sometime Wall Street financier with a Harvard Business School degree, accompanied Romney on the Mideast leg of his trip last month.

Reiss is also considered by some to be close to Romney, along with former ambassador Rich Williamson, although by Reiss’s own testimony he himself doesn’t talk to Romney much. He says Wong is the “gatekeeper,” and the process works well. The internal complaints, Reiss adds, are just “sour grapes. People aren’t getting face time. They’re not getting stroked the way they might want to get stroked, but the reality is it’s a much bigger operation. There’s no requirement for us to do this in person.”

Reiss adds that “there are a number of us who have been with him for a while, that have ability to talk to directly when we feel  it’s necessary.... I think all of us refrain  from doing that unless there’s an emergency.” Wong, he adds, “gives a very accurate and honest reflection of what it is we’ re saying,” which often goes to Lanhee Chen, the head of policy, and then to Romney.

The Romney campaign is trying hard to stay on unified message. When National Journal contacted one Romney foreign policy adviser, Ashley Tellis, a former senior adviser to the State Department on India, he declined an interview, saying, “I’m not supposed to discuss this with anyone. I’m under strict instructions not to.” Another adviser, Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg, who was former Vice President Dick Cheney’s deputy for national security, simply passed along an e-mail to Andrea Saul, the Romney campaign’s spokesperson.

Saul did not respond to a separate e-mail requesting comment.