Romney Veepstakes: Who Would Add Internationalist Cred to the Ticket?

James Kitfield
National Journal

When first-term Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was looking for a running mate to bolster a résumé short on foreign-policy experience and to help navigate the treacherous shoals of international relations during a time of war, he chose Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the chairman and longtime member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, also short on overseas experience, did something similar when he chose Dick Cheney, a former White House chief of staff and secretary of Defense who had successfully managed the Persian Gulf War.

Neither Biden nor Cheney brought important swing states (Delaware and Wyoming, respectively) or voting constituencies to the ticket. They were chosen in large part because they had experience and gravitas on the world stage.

(PICTURES: Romney's Possible VP Picks)

Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney probably will not choose a vice president based on that person’s fluency in foreign relations. Even more than most, this presidential election is all about the domestic economy. But after Romney’s shaky and gaffe-ridden foray into international affairs on his recent trip to the United Kingdom, Israel, and Poland, perhaps he should reconsider.

Most voters have already decided which candidate’s economic calculus best squares with their own. The remaining swing voters may be more inclined to hand Romney the keys to the global superpower if the person riding shotgun has been around the block a few times. Romney has tacked hard to the right to secure his party’s nomination, making it tough to pin down his essential worldview. Here are a few potential vice presidential candidates who fit comfortably into major foreign-policy schools within the Republican Party:

Condoleezza Rice. The announcement that the former secretary of State is slated to speak at the Republican National Convention all but confirms the conventional wisdom that she was too bold and chancy a vice presidential pick. Rice’s pro-abortion-rights views are anathema to the evangelical and conservative base, for instance, and her service in the George W. Bush administration recalls memories of the Iraq war that many Republicans would just as soon forget.

More’s the pity. Rice can fairly be criticized for her stint as national security adviser in the first Bush 43 term, during which she was regularly steamrolled by Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. As secretary of State during Bush’s second term, however, Rice successfully mended fences with European allies whose feelings were bruised over Iraq, she pushed a “freedom agenda” in the Middle East that was just slightly ahead of its time, and she reasserted the traditional role of the United States as mediator in the Arab-Israeli dispute. By the end of her tenure at Foggy Bottom, Rice had emerged from the considerable shadows cast by Rumsfeld and Cheney with a reputation as a one-woman charm offensive — no mean feat.

Rice also has intangibles that could serve Romney well. She would be a Russia expert in an administration that seems intent on a more confrontational approach toward Moscow. Rice is also an excellent public speaker and debater, critical skills needed in a presidential campaign. As an African-American woman, she would cut into President Obama’s lead among those constituencies in what is likely to prove a close election. Rice has also displayed a trait much desired in vice presidents — unquestioned loyalty to the boss.

Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina Republican is one of three senators who argued in The Washington Post this week that the Obama administration’s cautious, largely hands-off approach to the civil war in Syria is at odds with both American values and interests. Graham, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., are the three amigos who over the past decade have come to personify a particularly muscular, neoconservative brand of U.S. foreign policy. For these neo-Wilsonians with a sword, America has a moral duty to confront evil around the world and stand alongside all those trying to throw off the yoke of tyranny and oppression. As it happens, that worldview comports nicely with Romney's support for an increase in defense spending and full-throated advocacy for the idea of “American exceptionalism.”

McCain and Lieberman have already tested the presidential waters. Perhaps the third time would prove the charm for their junior partner and fellow member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. Like his cohorts, Graham has come by his tough and interventionist worldview the hard way: by traveling frequently to war zones and regions of conflict to get an on-the-ground perspective.

Graham’s military service in the Air Force and Air Force Reserves and his expertise in military and counterterrorism policy could fill a void in Romney’s résumé, and his folksy manner and Southern twang could nicely balance the Northeastern orientation at the top of the ticket. Graham is also a deft and sharp-tongued debater, and like Biden, he has a time-tested ability to reach across the aisle, which could prove useful in helping enact Romney’s agenda in Congress.

David Petraeus. The Drudge Report is reporting that Romney met secretly with Petraeus in New Hampshire, and that Obama thinks Romney wants the retired four-star general and current CIA director as his vice president. “I can say with absolute confidence that such an assertion has never been uttered by the president," White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday.

Still, the Drudge item renewed speculation about Petraeus’s possible political ambitions, a favorite parlor game in Washington for years. When Petraeus was offered the CIA job rather than chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as most experts expected, there was even scuttlebutt that the White House was worried that the hero of the Iraq and Afghanistan “surges” would prove too popular and powerful to manage during a period of planned defense cutbacks.

The “August surprise” of Petraeus on the ticket would certainly energize Republicans. It would also represent the highest-profile foray into politics by a retired general since Wesley Clark ran for president as a Democrat in 2004, and arguably showcase the most attractive soldier-statesman candidate since Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Petraeus is widely considered a brilliant strategist and one of the most gifted leaders of his generation of officers, and no one better understands the crucial intersection between the military, intelligence, and diplomatic worlds. He is also expert in dealing with the press, and fits nicely into Romney’s narrative of reclaiming an era of “peace through [military] strength.”

Petraeus — whose wife, Holly, also has a job in the Obama administration — has long insisted that he has no interest in politics, however, and few even know whether he has Republican or Democratic leanings. At the top levels, the U.S. military tends to produce cautious pragmatists, and that may be a difficult fit for these hyper-partisan times.

Chuck Hagel. Despite attacking Obama consistently from the neoconservative right on foreign policy, Romney has a résumé that suggests a natural affinity for the more moderate “realist” or “pragmatic internationalist” wing of the Republican Party — moderate governor of a Northeastern state, successful in international business. His campaign is also being advised by some of the leading Republican realists and liberal internationalists, including former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and James Baker.

Any search for a vice presidential candidate with that worldview along with extensive military and foreign-policy experience would have former Secretary of State Colin Powell at the top, but he has been critical of Romney’s hard-line position on Russia and choice of some foreign-policy advisers who are “quite far to the right.” Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates also qualifies for this group, but he is disqualified by his service in the Obama administration.

Another prospect near the top of that short list of moderate Republican realists is Hagel, the former senator from Nebraska. A decorated hero of the Vietnam War as an infantryman (two Purple Hearts, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry), Hagel voted for the Iraq war before becoming a vociferous critic of the Bush administration’s handling of it. He thus has avoided some of the Iraq war tarnish that some Republicans carry. An attractive campaigner, Hagel’s defense and international-affairs credentials are also impeccable: Since retiring from the Senate in 2009, Hagel has served as chairman of the Atlantic Council, cochairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and a member of the secretary of Defense’s Policy Board. Hagel was also rumored to be a possible Obama pick for vice president in 2008 — a rumor he did little to dispel, suggesting he is not averse to taking up residency at the Naval Observatory.

John Bolton. If, on the other hand, Romney truly believes that Russia is our “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” really plans to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, and is serious about confronting Iran militarily over its suspected nuclear-weapons program sooner rather than later, then he might consider uber-hawk and close campaign adviser Bolton for vice president. Such a pick would certainly prove popular with a tea party base that finds Bolton’s “don’t tread on me” unilateralism and nationalism bracing, and backs the “finger-in-the-eye” approach to diplomacy that Bolton personified as George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.

In recent commentary in National Review Online, Bolton left little question of the advice he would offer if Romney is inaugurated on Jan. 20: The U.S. should withdraw from the New START arms-control treaty with Russia; accelerate a missile-defense system and launch an arms race in space seeking to neutralize the strategic arsenals of both Russia and China; tell Iran that U.S. patience with them has ended, presenting a “stark choice” that leaves “to their imagination” the military devastation to follow; and arm the Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. “The magnitude of such a shift as a response to the conflict in Syria may seem startling, but each of these proposals is meritorious on its own terms,” wrote Bolton, who has acted as a Romney foreign-policy surrogate on the campaign trail. “It’s time for a wake-up call to the Kremlin and [China].”