IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT: IT IS TWO WEEKS AFTER Election Day and President-elect Mitt Romney holds a press conference to announce his foreign-policy team, the officials who will guide his administration's relations with the rest of the world. "Team of rivals!" proclaims Romney. He says he has decided to fill the top jobs in foreign policy with his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination. For secretary of state: Rick Santorum. For secretary of defense: Newt Gingrich. For CIA director: Rick Perry. For national security adviser: Michele Bachmann ...
OK, that was just a scary joke. It's not going to happen. But it does serve as a reminder that, after 30-plus Republican primaries and an unprecedented number of debates, voters have little idea of how Mitt Romney would deal with the world outside America's borders, what his philosophy is, or whom he would name to high-level positions in his administration. The greatest uncertainty, though, is one that reaches beyond Romney: Where would the next Republican administration go after the disaster of George W. Bush's war in Iraq? Toward other military interventions, or an effort to preserve the status quo, or some degree of retrenchment?
Romney's views on foreign policy are a matter of no small consequence. Whoever occupies the White House from 2013 to 2017 will preside over American policy at a critical time. He may have to decide whether to launch military action against Iran's nuclear program--or if war has broken out with Iran, how to manage its consequences. The next president will also have to chart the future course of American policy toward China. He will have to determine how much to press for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. He will have to negotiate the size of the defense budget with Congress.
Above all, he will have to figure out America's role in the world in an era of financial constraints. Like Obama, Romney has argued repeatedly that the United States is not a declining power in the way that many in China and elsewhere around the world now perceive. He will have to tailor his policies to show that these claims are not just American bravado.
The primaries settled one foreign-policy issue of consequence for the direction of the Republican Party: Voters overwhelmingly rejected the libertarian isolationism of Ron Paul. This was not as much of a given as it may seem in retrospect. Paul, who questioned American involvements overseas and advocated dramatic reductions in the defense budget, had polled well at the annual gatherings of the Conservative Political Action Conference and, indeed, in the Iowa primary in January. His views on foreign policy seemed to be compatible with those of some other conservatives--the columnist George Will, for example--who questioned the sort of assertiveness that led the Bush administration into the Iraq War. But Paul eventually faded, his message marginalized. At the grass roots, American conservatives are still fundamentally hawkish.
Other than Paul and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, all the Republican candidates fell back mostly on the standard cliches. There was, especially, the boilerplate accusation that the Democrats are weak on defense. This is a Republican refrain that dates back to the 1950s but one that had little resonance in the 2008 campaign, after Bush had established how a show of national strength could go awry. During the primaries, "weak on defense" made a comeback. The conservative columnist Peggy Noonan parodied the Republican debates: "We should bomb Iran Thursday. No, stupid, we should bomb Iran on Wednesday." Romney and most of the other Republican candidates accused Obama of failing to believe in "American exceptionalism," though none could explain what, in practical terms, this means for foreign policy.
Finally, along with other Republicans, Romney accused Obama of making "apologies" abroad--the suggestion being that a president should not acknowledge that the United States has ever erred (or that it is even capable of erring). …