Romney's Secretary of State: Whittling the List

As Washington guessing games go, curiosity over America's next Secretary of State might fall second in line behind the intrigue-laden Veepstakes. While Treasury is esoteric and Defense is dense, our last two presidents have employed a series of top diplomats who brought star quality and definitive personal style to State, in Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.

So, whom might Mitt Romney pick, should he get the chance?

In an April op-ed at the Daily Beast, Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie Gelb offered up a list of possibilities:

  • outgoing World Bank President Robert Zoellick
  • Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass
  • former National Security Adviser (under George W. Bush) Stephen Hadley
  • current Deputy Secretary of State William Burns
  • Harvard professor and former number-three State Department official (under George W. Bush) Nicholas Burns

Romney has adopted a notably hawkish foreign-policy/national-security platform, one that may limit his choice to lead the State Department if he insists on hiring a secretary who agrees with him on everything. While the names above count as sensible choices for an incoming Republican president (with the exception, perhaps, of career diplomat and current Obama-administration employee William Burns), we can probably eliminate some of them right now because they disagree with Romney on critical policy points.

A few stances, in particular, have drawn bipartisan dispute. In March, Romney asserted that Russia is "without question our number-one geopolitical foe," a statement the drew a rebuke from former secretary of State Colin Powell and little support from the foreign-policy community.

He has pledged to sanction China for manipulating its currency. He opposes talks with the Taliban although some Republican think-tankers, along with Democrats, have suggested a diplomatic exit from Afghanistan is the most plausible.

On Afghanistan, Romney sounded early on as if he wanted to stay the course. In January 2011, Romney said it's his position (and the GOP's) that American troops should stay there, but his current policy is withdrawal, and his criticism of Obama has focused on the announcement of a timeline - the when and how of pulling out, rather than the if. "Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders," his website states.

Some of these ideas don't mesh with the names Gelb offered up in April.

Haass favors Afghanistan withdrawal more forcefully than Romney has. "[P]ast sacrifice is a poor justification for continued sacrifice unless it is warranted. The truth is that while the United Sates still has interests in Afghanistan, none of them, other than opposing al-Qaeda, rise to the level of vital. And this vital interest can be addressed with a modest commitment of troops and dollars," Haass wrote last month in a Huffington Post op-ed, the tone of which did not fit with Romney's public statements.

Hadley called for Taliban talks in a Foreign Policy op-ed he coauthored in an Afghanistan treatise with Center for American Progress chair John Podesta. "Efforts to reach a settlement should include an approach to Taliban elements that are ready to give up the fight and become part of the political process," they wrote. "Such an approach would not - as some have suggested - constitute 'surrender' to America's enemies."

Nicholas Burns, the former number-three in Condoleezza Rice's State Department, told ABC News he sides with Obama on Afghanistan withdrawal and peace talks.

"I really think talking to the Taliban makes a lot of sense. I support that. I support the troop withdrawal that Obama announced at the Chicago summit in early May," Burns said. "I support the president's view on that, so I obviously don't agree with what governor Romney said."

Nicholas Burns questioned the wisdom of Romney's tough talk about China and Russia, as the U.S. works to maintain their support for sanctions against Iran. "The complexity of that relationship [with China] does not lend itself to flip statements," Burns said.

That leaves us with William Burns, a current deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and Zoellick, the World Bank president who would not say last month whether he plans to advise Romney after leaving the World Bank on June 30.

One name that has not quite surfaced is John Bolton, America's former ambassador to the U.N. under president George W. Bush. Bolton is not listed among Romney's official coterie of advisers, but The New York Times' David Sanger reported that he holds outsized sway over the candidate's international views, to the chagrin of some moderates on Romney's team.

If Romney's thinking most closely mirrors that of the mustached American Enterprise Institute scholar and Fox News analyst, perhaps the idea isn't so far fetched.