WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney mitigates his lack of formal foreign policy experience with advice from people who do — a small, ideologically varied group of longtime foreign policy hands and a handful of longtime, loyal staffers.
The former Massachusetts governor and businessman hears them out, and then typically has taken a hard line, seizing on incidents abroad to criticize President Barack Obama as a weak leader. Occasionally Romney sidesteps calls for caution from within this select group. That's what he did this week as he signed off on the decision to criticize Obama as a weak leader as unrest in Egypt was unfolding, and before it was known that a U.S. ambassador had died in Libya.
Although his campaign claims a long list of foreign policy advisers, Romney consults only about a half dozen people when an international crisis flares. The group includes two former secretaries of state, two former ambassadors, and one former and one current senator. Some in the group typically press for a more conservative — or neoconservative — approach; others are more moderate. Each has a loose portfolio, though they all contribute to the broader foreign affairs discussion.
Romney turned to members of this group — and particularly former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, the candidate's go-to for Russia and defense — after Obama told Russia President Dmitri Medvedev to tell incoming Russian leader Vladimir Putin he would have more flexibility to deal with missile defense after the election. Russia, Romney said afterwards, is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." Putin referenced the comment just this week, saying it strengthened his resolve in opposing NATO plans for missile defense installations in Europe.
Romney pounced again when Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng left the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He criticized Obama as weak in his dealings with China and portrayed the president as unwilling to stand up for human rights.
And then as protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday, Romney's campaign relied heavily on a close adviser — Rich Williamson, a former aide to Sen. John McCain — in drafting a late-night statement accusing Obama of "disgraceful" handling of the attacks. The next day, after drawing strong criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, members of this group were on conference calls with Romney himself, discussing how to move forward. McCain advised Romney to give a major foreign affairs speech laying out his critique of Obama before the end of the week.
Here's a look at Romney's advisers who inform his worldview.
— Williamson, a Chicago native, held diplomatic posts under the last three Republican presidents and was brought into Romney's inner circle at the behest of McCain, whom Williamson advised in 2008. As Romney's campaign read news reports and tweets Tuesday about the protests in Cairo, Williamson helped draft the statement critical of Obama, part of his role drawing contrasts between Romney and the president on foreign policy.
— Talent served on the Senate Armed Services Committee from 2002 to 2007. He's also pushed Romney's tough stances toward Russia, including the candidate's opposition to the New START Treaty. Romney has called that nuclear nonproliferation agreement Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake," claiming it would tie America's hands and cede ground to the Russians.
— McCain, the party's 2008 nominee who endorsed Romney during the primaries, is an important surrogate on veteran's issues and speaks directly with Romney on national security, defense and foreign policy issues. He and Romney spoke Wednesday, after Romney's initial statement, and the former presidential candidate told this year's nominee to deliver a formal speech on foreign affairs. When Romney said his campaign was working on one, McCain recommended that Romney give the speech before the week was out.
— Dan Senor, a neoconservative and spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003-2004, takes the lead on the Middle East. He offers a hawkish line on Israel and Iran and was the architect behind Romney's visit to Israel in August. Senor maintains close relationships with staffers who work for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, known to have a chilly relationship with Obama.
— Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state under President George W. Bush, offers Romney general strategy and advice. She's highly regarded at Romney's Boston campaign headquarters and her primetime speech at the Republican National Convention received raves.
— James Baker served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. He also served as White House chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan.
— Mitchell Reiss, now the president of Washington College, worked at the State Department under Colin Powell, George W. Bush's first secretary of state. He often takes a more moderate tack than others in the inner circle. Romney, who's taken a hard line in criticizing China for currency manipulation and intellectual property theft, goes to Reiss for advice on issues in Asia.
Follow Kasie Hunt on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kasie.