The Tale of Two Romneys

We don't know which is running: the moderate from Massachusetts, or the conservative philosophically

The question going into the general election is: who is the real Mitt Romney? We don't really know which of them is running, the moderate from Massachusetts, as Newt Gingrich never tired of saying, or the conservative mantle bearer who is philosophically to the right of Ayn Rand.

Now that Rick Santorum, the social conservative, has suspended his presidential bid, Romney can rejigger his campaign for the general election. That usually means a candidate turns his attention to the wide middle ground where the coveted independents are awaiting his charms.

Romney isn't doing that. In fact, as a recent appearance at a conference of the National Rifle Association suggests, he is banking to the right even more on issues like immigration, abortion and gun rights. He even endorsed US Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian federal budget, which calls, in effect, for gutting Medicare.

Bob Moser of the American Prospect calls this the Santorum Effect:

 ... [Santorum] helped push Romney to the right of the average general-election voter ... Romney cannot "course-correct" back to the centre — except in completely symbolic ways — with hardcore conservatives warily watching for any hints of apostasy.

This of course depends on the sound memory of the media. As it did with President Obama's hope to implement a new tax on millionaires, the media is beginning to forget all those arch-conservative things Romney had to say to get arch-conservatives to believe he was just as arch a conservative as Santorum. You know, like bombing Iran, repealing health care reform laws and eliminating the Education Department.

Now that the GOP nomination process is essentially over (though former House Speaker Gingrich and US Rep. Ron Paul are still in the running), pundits are now reverting to calling Romney a moderate, mostly because that's what he was during the time of his governorship of Massachusetts and because that's what his genuinely conservative rivals kept calling him.

But is it true? Yeah, probably. Romney works too hard to sound conservative but appears at ease when talking about things like the safety net and the embattled middle class (conservatives never say "safety net" or "class"). Romney also seems to think of himself as a competent manager more than a fire-breathing ideologue. He was, after all, the head of a private-equity firm that made money by cleaning up other people's messes.

Such an attitude toward government has roots in American liberalism and neoconservatism (which is like liberalism sans hope). Such theories generally call for the solving of social problems by identifying and applying the right fix. Politics is more puzzle than worldview. Take away the idea that society is perfectible, and you might have the moderate that Mitt might be.

That, of course, assumes he's not going to enact all those conservative things he says he's going to enact as president. But saying isn't being -- and conservatives know this better than most. Noam Scheiber of the New Republic argues that Mitt is too moderate to beat Obama, only because the GOP's base is going to be second-guessing him from now till November, just as it did with Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. Romney isn't like George W Bush, whose conservative bona fide were unquestioned that he could talk about the poor and without sounding like a candy-ass liberal.

I buy it. You sell conservatives on gays, guns and God, not on rational public policy. If you do, you can't rely on their vote. Romney doesn't have to worry about appealing to independents. He has to worry about his base.

Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney talk to members of the media aboard his campaign plane on March 6, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.


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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at