A scrubbing on foreign policy

WASHINGTON — In 1967, a TV interviewer asked George Romney to explain why he supported the Vietnam War after a trip to that country in 1965 but opposed it two years later when he was running for president.

“You know, when I came back from Vietnam, I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get,” Romney said.

“By the generals?” asked Lou Gordon, from Detroit’s WKBD-TV.

“Not only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there,” the candidate said. “They do a very thorough job.”

Susceptibility to brainwashing is apparently an inherited trait. If brainwashing accounts for a change in position, George’s son Mitt has had his gray matter cleansed more often than most people shampoo their hair.

The “brainwashing” interview ended the elder Romney’s career. But brainwashing doesn’t carry the stigma it did 45 years ago. Scrubbing one’s brain clean of previous positions has been Mitt Romney’s stock in trade. In fact, his foreign-policy speech Monday to the Virginia Military Institute was one long gargle-and-rinse of the candidate’s previous positions.

Last year, Romney called the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya “mission creep and mission muddle.” On Monday, he accused Obama of declining to use “America’s greatest power to shape history” and of eschewing “our best examples of world leadership” in that same corner of the world.

Last year, Romney said American troops “shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.” On Monday, he spoke of that same conflict as a matter of the utmost national importance, saying the route to “attacks here at home is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.”

Last year, Romney reversed his earlier support for the Iraq war, saying, “If we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction … obviously we would not have gone in.” On Monday, he was back to his original view, accusing the Obama administration of an “abrupt withdrawal” from Iraq and portraying the situation there as part of “a struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair.”

Just a few months ago, Romney said “there’s just no way” to achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians because Palestinians are “not wanting to see peace.” He said it was necessary to “recognize this is going to remain an unsolved problem.” On Monday, he said he would “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security” with Israel.

Rub-a-dub-dub! Four positions got scrubbed.

Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom famously predicted that the candidate would use an Etch A Sketch approach in the general election to erase his previous positions. But nobody predicted that the entire exercise would occur in the space of one week — and just a month before the election. Stranger yet, Romney hasn’t been shifting all his views to the center in recent days. While his domestic policies are moderating, his foreign policy is moving to more of a neocon hard line. The only consistency is inconsistency: Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer. As his dad might have said, it has been a very thorough job.

The process began last week in Denver, when Romney stipulated that he would not reduce the share of taxes the wealthy pay, that he would not enact a tax cut that adds to the deficit and that he would not cut education spending.

This was followed a couple of days later by the most thorough brainwash. After weeks of defending his secretly recorded claim that 47 percent of Americans are mooching off the government, he told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity: “I said something that’s just completely wrong.”

These came on top of Romney’s reversals of long-standing positions on abortion, taxes, Ronald Reagan, global warming, economic stimulus funding, the auto-industry bailout and gun rights. So by the time he arrived in Lexington, Va., for Monday’s speech, Romney might as well have been carrying a bottle of Listerine: Another wash was obviously coming.

As the lather rinses, questions remain: Was Romney brainwashed before? Is he being brainwashed now? Or is it a continuous cleaning cycle?

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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