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Romney’s Foreign Policy Liability and the Iraq War

Citing some of the findings from the Chicago Council’s new survey, Dan Drezner speculates that Romney’s foreign policy views could be alienating some of the undecided voters he needs to win:

So, for Romney to win, he’s going to have to run the table with the tiny sliver of undecided independents.

And here is where foreign policy becomes a real problem for Mitt Romney — because if the Chicago Council results are accurate, independents basically want the exact opposite of what Mitt Romney is selling them.

Drezner is right that Romney’s foreign policy views hurt him politically. They might not cost him the election, and if they contribute to his loss they will not be the only or most significant factor, but they are definitely not making it easier for Romney to win. His foreign policy views are almost certainly making it more difficult to win. Romney has also created the impression that he is not well-versed or competent on foreign policy issues, and I suspect that this is having more of a negative effect than any statements Romney has made.

Insofar as more independents are favoring a less activist foreign policy, as the survey shows, Romney’s call for a more aggressive and activist U.S. role in the world cannot be appealing. How much less anxiety would some persuadable voters have that Romney would repeat Bush-era foreign policy mistakes if he weren’t giving them every reason to expect exactly that? I don’t know, but it may be keeping some voters from trusting him enough to support him.

Romney’s foreign policy views are a liability for his campaign, because they tend to put him at odds with a large majority of independents. For instance, Republican leaders and Romney advisers generally still believe the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do. The Republican ticket includes two supporters of the Iraq war, and they have expressed no misgivings about the war or their past support for it. Just as they were in 2006 and 2008, leading Republicans are out of step with most of the public and a large number of their own constituents on how they view the Iraq war. Among non-Republicans, there is an overwhelming consensus that the Iraq war was not worth fighting. As the survey report explains:

But partisanship has colored views of the Iraq war even more than it has for Afghanistan. Democrats are 27 points more likely to say that the war was not worth the costs (75% vs. 48% of Republicans). More Democrats than Republicans agree that the Iraq war should make nations more cautious about using military force in dealing with rogue states (75% vs. 63%) and that the war has worsened relations with the Muslim world (74% vs. 66%). Democrats are also more likely than Republicans to say that the threat of terrorism was not reduced by the war (74% vs. 60%). On these questions, Independents match the opinions of Democrats quite closely [bold mine-DL].

Romney is lucky that foreign policy is a very low priority for almost all voters this election, so whatever damage his views are doing to his candidacy is greatly reduced. However, to the extent that independents know and care what Romney’s foreign policy is, they are very likely to disapprove of it. The good news for Romney is that many undecided voters are notorious for voting for candidates whose policies contradict the voters’ preferences. Many of them don’t vote based on policy, and they often don’t think about voting in terms of policy issues. Romney still has a decent chance with many undecided voters because his policy views are irrelevant to their decisions on how to vote. Even so, it is true that independents are most likely to reject the foreign policy Romney favors, and they are doing so in no small part because the failures of the Bush administration have colored their view of these issues.

The bigger problem for the Republican Party over the longer term is that their views are increasingly at odds with those of younger voters. The younger the cohort, the less likely it is to favor the U.S. playing an “active role in world affairs.” 39% of the survey’s respondents 30-44 prefer that the U.S. “stay out” of world affairs, and that figure rises to 52% among Millennials. Young voter enthusiasm for Ron Paul in the Republican primaries and disproportionate Millennial support for Democrats at the end of the Bush era and afterwards are not accidents. These are direct and natural reactions to the Iraq war debacle and the Republican Party’s close identification with it. There are undoubtedly other reasons why Republicans are doing so poorly among Millennial voters, but their costly foreign policy failure in the Bush years is clearly one of them. Unless the GOP learns from that failure and adapts to an electorate that is increasingly skeptical of the value of an aggressive and activist foreign policy, the party’s weakness on foreign policy is going to keep growing.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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