Has Mitt Romney Ditched His Neoconservative Talking Points?

We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us. - Mitt Romney, Presidential Debate, Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012

With these words, Mitt Romney might have made the final, crucial connection to an American public tired of more than a decade of war, and desperate not to start any new ones.

Obama did his best to remind voters of why they haven’t trusted Republicans on foreign policy since 2005. He uttered the word Iraq 10 times. Romney mentioned it three times, once by accident—referring mistakenly to “the president of Iraq—excuse me, of Iran”— and once to explicitly and categorically deny that he had any intentions of going back down that road by launching another war.

Such sentiments can’t make Romney’s neoconservative advisers happy. They are the ones who sold the war in the first place, they peddled a “surge” in a desperate attempt to create a narrative that resembled victory, and it is they, who, to this day, proudly declare that the war was worth fighting. Their every statement betrays how truly marginalized they are, isolated from a public that can see the facts plainly before it, and concludes something very different: this war was a horrible mistake, and one that we are determined not to repeat. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal all but avoided commenting on the substance of Romney’s statements last night—probably because there wasn’t much substance.

Questions remain, however. First, is Mitt Romney truly committed to avoiding Iraq-style wars in the future? If so, why did he choose to surround himself with so many of the war’s most fervent advocates? Second, why is he opposed to additional reductions in the Army and Marine Corps, forces that grew specifically to fight the war that was supposed to be a “cakewalk” but that turned out to be something very different? If Mitt Romney doesn’t intend to engage in costly, open-ended nation-building missions abroad, why does he need a conventional military geared for that purpose? And, third, what lessons from the Iraq war inform his conduct of foreign policy? Was Iraq a good idea, poorly executed, or was this a bad idea from the get-go?

A recent article explained how Romney wanted to draw distinctions between himself and President George W. Bush, starting with the war in Iraq. “The idea that Romney is following the George W. Bush approach is a caricature the Democrats want to draw,” a senior Romney foreign policy adviser told the Los Angeles Times’s Paul Richter, “We’re not going to help them with that.”

They didn’t last night. We’ll find out soon enough if it worked.