Romneyland Springs Leaks on Foreign Policy

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Carlos Osorio / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks in Lansing, Mich., May 8, 2012.

I’ve seen some recent praise for the discipline of the Romney campaign, which has generally proven effective at hewing to its core message and preventing internal strife from leaking to the media. David Sanger’s fascinating Sunday New York Times story on Romney’s foreign policy vision is a dramatic exception.

I was grabbed right away by Sanger’s lead, which spotlighted Romney’s remarkably under-discussed assertion that U.S. policy should be to defeat the Taliban, not negotiate with it. As I wrote recently, that position breaks dramatically from a bipartisan consensus and also implies a much longer and more violent American commitment to that conflict than the public seems willing to tolerate. No wonder that Romney’s statement, made in a January debate, caused “a faction of his foreign policy advisers to shake their heads in wonderment,” as Sanger puts it.

Substantively, it’ll be mighty interesting to see how Romney handles this question when it comes up next: Will he backpedal or double down on his politically sulphuric view. But almost as interesting is the broader implication of Sanger’s piece, which is that Romney is surrounded by foreign policy experts frustrated enough with him to feed the Times a negative story, to the point of implying that Romney doesn’t thoroughly understand or possibly even even care much about foreign affairs. (“Romney doesn’t want to really engage these issues until he is in office,” one adviser confides to Sanger.) From my read of Sanger’s piece, Romney advisers seem to have qualms about his rhetoric on countries ranging from Iran to China to Russia. (Sanger notes pointedly–and, I assume, based on a sour whisper from the advisory circle–that Romney wrote a 2010 op-ed piece opposing Obama’s new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia “without much input from his staff.”)

So much for internal discipline. One chatty adviser confesses to Sanger that he would be “cashiered” from the campaign for speaking so freely, and understandably so. Fehrnstrom must be on the warpath. To be fair, campaigns can have dozens, even hundreds of “advisers,” and it’s not clear from Sanger’s story whether the dissidents are inner-sanctum types or outer-orbit people who submit a memo to some regional working group every now and then. Regardless, this kind of chatter is embarrassing for the campaign. It’s also chum in the water for the national media, which has been reminded of Romney’s inexperience in world affairs–something he’s been relatively unchallenged on thus far–and which is sure to start drilling deeper on that subject soon. Asking Romney to explain his plan to “defeat” the Taliban would be a fine place to start.