In a striking political acknowledgment Tuesday, a former top Democratic foreign policy official revisited her comments from the turbulent 2012 presidential campaign and directly and openly said she owed then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney an apology.
Madeleine Albright, who served as President Bill Clinton's secretary of state and supported President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, apologized to Romney, then Obama's Republican opponent and now Utah's junior senator, for her repeated criticism of his claim that Russia was the country's "number one geopolitical foe," as he said during the campaign.
Romney's claim drew a memorable slam from Obama during a presidential debate: "The 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back," Obama said, seeking to paint Romney as out of touch on a key foreign policy issue.
Albright, who similarly criticized Romney in 2012, said she'd "underestimated" Russia back then.
“I personally owe an apology to now-Senator Romney, because I think that we underestimated what was going on in Russia,” Albright said during a House Intelligence Committee hearing.
“I was on the CIA external advisory board, there was no question that less money was being put into Russian language and what was going on in Russia.”
Albright apologized during a hearing on the national security risks of rising authoritarian governments around the world, and specifically how to fight advanced Internet-based technologies coming from authoritarian regimes. The hearing reflected how times have changed since 2012, before Russian internet bots launched a hefty 2016 campaign to alter confidence in U.S. democracy.
Romney first warned of Russia as a primary foe in March 2016, weeks after Obama was caught on an open mic telling a Russian official he would have more flexibility to negotiate missile sites after he won the election and was in his second term -- a position Romney and Republicans criticized as capitulating to Russia.
"This is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight for every cause for the world's worst actors," Romney said of Russia. "I'm saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors."
Romney couched it by explaining that he saw other countries as more obvious and immediate combatants: "Of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran, and a nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough. But when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them ... who is it that always stands up with the world's worst actors? It's always Russia, typically with China alongside," he said.
But Obama, who made the killing of bin Laden a cornerstone of his campaign, attacked Romney for failing to recognize the threat al-Qaida then presented to the peace and security of the United States. Democrats, including Albright, jumped on board, criticizing Romney for being out of touch, lacking foreign policy experience and missing the mark.
"The 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years," Obama famously quipped in the third presidential debate.
“If you were living in the 20th century, his position on Russia might make a certain amount of sense. We’re living in the 21st century, and to think that Russia is our biggest geostrategic threat makes absolutely no sense,” she was quoted as saying on a conference call after Romney delivered a foreign policy speech just before the election.
Albright served until former President Bill Clinton as secretary of state and on a CIA external advisory board beginning in 2009.
In testimony on Tuesday, she acknowledged that the U.S. was slow to react to the threat from Russia.
“Putin has put them back on the scene," Albright said.