The Canberra Times

Paul's non-interventionist message finds sympathy with war-weary Americans,

In December of last year, Mitt Romney expressed his admiration for Republican presidential contender Ron Paul's ability to "ignite an enthusiasm with the people". In contrast, Romney's own campaign has sparked a lacklustre response at best.

If Romney wanted, he could inspire similar independent support now that he will likely be the Republican presidential nominee. After all, Paul's grassroots popularity is not mysterious, it is simple: his non-interventionist message strikes a sympathetic chord with a war-weary American public, worn down by the enormous human and financial costs of so many United States overseas military ventures.

Yet puzzled pundits continue to scratch their heads, wondering at 76-year-old Paul's uncanny ability to galvanise widespread support: from liberals to libertarians, and college students to US troops.

Paul's wide-ranging supporters are responding primarily to his campaign slogan "end the wars" rather than "end the Fed." Paul has steadfastly called for an end to the seemingly unwinnable war on drugs, the seemingly endless war on terrorism, the seemingly unchecked federal attacks on civil liberties, and the seemingly illimitable increases to an already bloated military budget.

Romney claims that Paul doesn't represent "the mainstream of Republican thought" when it comes to foreign policy. Yet a remarkable new Stimson Center study shows that a large bipartisan majority of Americans support sweeping cuts to defence spending, with nearly two-thirds of Republicans and 90 per cent of Democrats favouring a sizeable — very sizeable — average decrease of nearly 20 per cent.

The popularity of present and future US military interventions has also reached new lows. The majority of Americans want out of Afghanistan and noisy neoconservative war-drumming against Iran is falling on the deaf ears of a discontented realist public.

Romney could easily tap into this popular non-interventionist sentiment, instead of castigating it. This would of course also mean overhauling his neoconservative outlook.

Self-avowed fiscal conservative Romney should first realise how unpopular his calls for massive increases to defence spending are. He has promised to grow the Pentagon budget by more than $US2 trillion over the next ten years, all while slashing taxes. His neocon promises not only run counter to Republicans and Democrats alike, they also directly contradict his pledge to balance the budget. Second, Romney should realise that labelling Russia the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" of the US; criticising policies of international engagement; threatening a trade war with China on day one in the Oval Office; or describing the recent US-Russia arms reduction treaty as Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet" are not going to inspire enthusiasm among America's growing supporters of non-interventionism.

Third, Romney should distance himself from the tainted neocon foreign policy legacy of George W. Bush. As of right now the two men "sound like ideological soul mates on foreign policy," notes Ari Berman in The Nation. About three-quarters of Romney's foreign policy advisers worked for the Bush administration. Eight — including John Bolton, Robert Kagan and Eliot Cohen — were also signatories of the Project for a New American Century, the influential neocon advocacy group that lobbied the Clinton and Bush administrations to invade Iraq. As Cato Institute foreign policy expert Christopher Preble observes: "I can't name a single Romney foreign policy adviser who believes the Iraq War was a mistake", whereas two-thirds of the American public "do believe the Iraq War was a mistake".

To make matters worse, on the ongoing Iranian nuclear issue and Afghanistan, Romney's staffers are even farther to George W. Bush's far right. On Iran, Romney calls for regime change, "imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions" and a "very real and very credible military option". He also suggests that negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan should come to an end, a position that even Bush's national security adviser Steve Hadley doesn't recommend as it leaves only a precarious, costly, and indefinite military solution on the table.

While Romney has proven politically ambidextrous on just about every other issue, for some reason the Republican flip-flopper continues to stick to his neocon guns.

A few months back, realist foreign policy specialist Stephen Walt rhetorically asked in Foreign Policy: "Is it possible that Paul's brand of foreign policy restraint just needs a better champion, one who is more broadly appealing but also not saddled by so much poisonous baggage?"

His question doesn't have to be rhetorical. Romney could be Walt's champion. His best bet to winning the election would be to shake the Etch-a-Sketch one more time and incorporate Paul's non-interventionist, lead-by-example message. The move would not only gain the endorsement of Paul and his supporters, it would also make Obama stand out on stage as the hawkish president that The Atlantic has recently reminded us he is.

Romney should shift foreign policy gears, but he probably won't. Odds are good that he will instead stick to his hawkish AIPAC platform, attempting to appear more militant than Obama on Iran, Afghanistan, and military spending.

Ten thousand dollars says Romney's neocon gamble doesn't pay off.