James Joyner confirms that the Zoellick episode is a Rorschach test:
While his foreign policy team includes enough neocons to keep that part of the base happy, his policy papers have strongly hinted at a conventionally Realist foreign policy. The Zoellich [sic] choice is a really welcome reinforcement of that message and the notion that he might emerge as Secretary of State rather than, say, John Bolton strikes me as much more in keeping with Romney’s history.
What history would that be? Romney doesn’t have a history on foreign policy as a politician before 2005, and since then he has been predictably and excessively hawkish. During this campaign, he has been inclined to favor so-called “Cheneyites” and hard-liners on every issue. Most of the complaints from inside his campaign have come from the advisers displeased with the positions he has taken, and all of those positions are associated with his most hawkish advisers (or they are more confrontational than even his hawkish advisers are willing to be). Romney’s foreign policy white paper is “conventionally realist” only if we empty the word of all content. Zoellick’s appointment is the thinnest reed on which to place hopes for a sane Romney foreign policy I have ever seen. It is significant that this meaningless appointment is the only thing realists can point to so far as evidence that Romney’s foreign policy wouldn’t be as awful as he promises it will be.
There is no point in putting one’s hopes in the “real Mitt Romney,” as if this Romney is going to be revealed at some later date to be nothing at all like Romney the candidate. If Romney has campaigned as an extremely hawkish nationalist surrounded by neoconservative advisers, it is much more likely that he will govern that way, too. Does he “really” believe the things he says? In the end, it doesn’t make much difference as long as he thinks it is politically necessary and useful for him to say them and to act on what he is saying.
As for neoconservatives and “the base,” I have to protest. Romney didn’t include neoconservatives on his foreign policy team to keep “that part of the base happy.” They aren’t part of “the base.” Neoconservatives are almost entirely movement and party elites, and they are the ones Romney was trying to satisfy. They have little or no representation at the rank-and-file level. If he didn’t have Robert Kagan and the like on his foreign policy team, 90% of Republican voters wouldn’t even notice, but neoconservative activists and pundits in Washington would. His choice of advisers is a statement about how he intends to govern, and the advisers he appears to listen to most often are among the most hawkish. I’m not sure that the Zoellick appointment even qualifies as throwing realists a (very small) bone, since there are indications that no thought was given to the policy implications of the choice. Realists are treating the appointment as a signal that Romney is sending out, but apparently it wasn’t intended as a signal and it doesn’t say anything about the content of Romney’s future foreign policy.
Update: Josh Rogin included an important reminder in his report on possible appointees in a Romney administration:
But Romney’s foreign-policy pronouncements thus far have not been in line with Zoellick’s realist views and it’s well understood that having a top position in a campaign doesn’t assure anyone a top position in the succeeding administration.
Assuming that Zoellick isn’t in line for a job for a future Romney administration, would anyone say that an administration with Joe Lieberman as Secretary of State, Mitchell Reiss as National Security Adviser, and Dan Senor as his deputy could be fairly characterized as one in which foreign policy realism held significant sway? I don’t think so. Mitchell Reiss has sometimes been described as Senor’s more “moderate” counterpart inside the campaign, but this is the same Reiss who advocates on behalf of the MEK, which is still considered a terrorist group by our government. If the range of debate among Romney’s main advisers runs from full support for an Israeli attack on Iran (Senor) to de-listing the MEK (Reiss), it seems reasonable to conclude that realist arguments aren’t going to be heard inside a Romney administration, much less accepted.