WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Little more than four months before the U.S. presidential elections, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team is facing the same kind of internal rivalries that dogged the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes.
Romney’s official campaign website lists 42 official foreign and defense advisers, including some of the Republican Party’s most prestigious experts, many veterans of past administrations.
But the team includes personalities strongly identified with contending factions whose internecine battles have dogged Republican foreign policy circles for a generation. One, more pragmatic, group is known as the “moderates.” Members of the other, with a harder ideological edge, are loosely known as “neocons,” short for neo-conservatives.
Already, fights have broken out over touchstone issues such as Russia and China, according to individuals close to the campaign.
One Romney campaign contributor who has interacted with the outside advisers said they held only one meeting as a group, in the offices of former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. It ended in an argument between moderates and neocons over Afghanistan policy.
Some Republican heavyweights from the more pragmatic, realpolitik school, including President George H.W. Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, have declined thus far to endorse Romney.
Vigorous debates are common within any presidential campaign, and it remains to be seen whether those in the Romney camp become a major problem, much less endure should he become president.
Campaign spokespeople and Romney partisans described the foreign policy debates as healthy - and aimed at giving the presumptive nominee the best advice. Some suggested the complaints represent the griping of advisers who are on the campaign’s margins, with little access.
Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, denied that its foreign policy team was bogged down in feuding and dysfunction.
“The foreign policy advisory team is a group of respected experts who work collectively, collegially, and closely to provide their best advice to Gov. Romney. He evaluates their opinions and ultimately make his own decisions on policy. Any rumors to the contrary are simply false and uninformed speculation that demonstrates a deep unfamiliarity with the campaign’s decision making,” Saul said.
Most of Romney’s public foreign policy pronouncements have leaned toward the conservative side of the spectrum.
On occasion, the former Massachusetts governor, has evoked the Cold War. In a March interview with CNN, he called Russia “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
On Iran, Romney has laid down a hard line, saying: “If I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran ... I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option.”
And Romney has harshly criticized Obama for announcing a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, saying in February: “Why in the world do you go to the people that you’re fighting with and tell them the date you’re pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense.”
A long-time Republican activist who has been in contact with some of the Romney camp’s more centrist elements said that moderates “are very concerned about the fact that if Romney needs to call anyone, his instinct is to call the Cheney-ites.”
This is a reference to acolytes of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Several top former Cheney aides are among Romney’s advisers.
But they also include prominent moderates such as Chertoff; former CIA and National Security Agency director General Michael Hayden and Mitchell Reiss, a former State Department official and prominent advocate of peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. (Romney himself has not taken that position).
A Republican source aligned with some of the party’s conservative elements said there have been “huge fights over policy” which have roiled the Romney adviser corps, resulting in full-time staffers trying to limit Romney’s public statements on foreign policy.
Richard Williamson, a senior Republican strategist who advises Romney, acknowledged a “difference of views” among the advisers, which he characterized as normal for a presidential campaign.
But Williamson denied the campaign was plagued by factional squabbles.
Campaigns “by their nature” involve some infighting, said Williamson, whom the campaign made available to Reuters. He said that Romney “likes divergent views.”
“I think that’s a plus,” Williamson said. “I look at it as healthy... I find it comforting that Mitt Romney makes up his own mind.”
Richard Grenell, who was briefly the Romney campaign’s foreign policy spokesman but resigned after controversies erupted over his archive of tart twitter messages and support for gay rights, said that in practice, the campaign relied on a fairly small array of advisers for day-to-day operations.
This meant it was possible some official and would-be advisers felt isolated from the candidate. “If an adviser is saying that Mitt Romney’s campaign is ... chaotic, it’s because they’re not being used,” he said.
People familiar with campaign operations said that day-to-day handling of foreign policy was largely in the hands of full-time campaign staff and that only a handful of outsiders regularly talked with Romney about foreign affairs.
One of the principal gatekeepers to the candidate is Alex Wong, a young lawyer who holds the campaign staff title of Director of Foreign, Defense and Judicial Policy.
Williamson is also said to have Romney’s ear.
While not promoting himself as Romney’s foreign policy guru, Williamson confirmed that he had helped prepare Romney for primary debates. He also said he had “never had a problem getting my views in the mix” or to Romney.
Republican sources characterized Williamson generally as a “moderate” figure whose credentials as a one-time close aide to Ronald Reagan likely protect him from the kind of obloquy some conservatives have directed towards other moderates on the Romney team.
One of the few other prominent Republican foreign policy figures who several campaign sources said also had frequent access to Romney is John Bolton, a Cheney ally and former State and Justice department official and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Bolton, who has made several campaign appearances for Romney, has fiercely attacked President Barack Obama, suggesting at one point, while on the stage with Romney, that Obama “has done almost everything possible to weaken the United States, to jeopardize our interests and our friends around the world.”
In late March, after Obama was overheard telling then Russian President Dimitri Medvedev that he would “have more flexibility” after this year’s election, Bolton and 35 of Romney’s other listed advisers signed an “open letter” to the president. It raised a series of hardline points about topics such as missile defense, Iran’s nuclear program, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and Israel’s standoff with the Palestinians.
Notable by their absence from the list of signatories were Chertoff and Hayden, the co-chairs of the Romney campaign’s “working group” on counter-terrorism and intelligence, as well as five other advisers listed on the Romney campaign website.
A Romney aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the campaign could not reach some of the seven in time, and others had a policy of publishing their opinions on their own.
Additional reporting by Lauren French; Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh