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Romney the Liberal Internationalist?

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shocked many on both sides of the political aisle when during Monday's debate on foreign policy he called for the arrest of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Romney's words, "I'd make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it."

Following the debate, a senior adviser to the former Massachusetts Governor reportedly elaborated on the comment. According to Talking Points Memo, Eric Fehrnstrom suggested that the "World Court" could take Ahmadinejad into custody. When reporter Benjy Sarlin asked Fehrnstrom if arrest was possible, he replied, "I'm hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely."

Unfortunately for Romney's foreign policy team, there is one huge problem with this line of reasoning: the World Court does not prosecute individuals. The parties before the World Court are sovereign states. In other words, if Fehrnstrom really meant the World Court, then he displays a fundamental ignorance regarding international law and global institutions.

Now it's possible that Fehrnstrom misspoke and what he really meant was that the International Criminal Court (ICC) could indict Ahmadinejad. The ICC, which like the World Court is also located in The Hague, does actually indict and prosecute individuals for gross human rights violations. Even former heads of state have been subject to its jurisdiction.

This though creates a whole other problem for Team Romney: since its inception most Republicans (and even many Democrats) have been opponents of the ICC. The George W. Bush administration made clear that it had no intention of submitting the Rome Statute, which created the court, for ratification. And after nearly four years in office, the Obama administration has not bothered to press for ratification either.

Why the opposition? Because if the U.S. joins the ICC, Americans (including the President himself) would be subject to its binding authority, including indictment and arrest. For many political officials, that is seen as ceding away American sovereignty to an international institution, which they feel directly violates the U.S. Constitution.

Is Romney now calling for a reversal of this bi-partisan foreign policy platform? Probably not. As with Romney, who called for an indictment for what likely amounts to non-prosecutable political rhetoric, Fehrnstrom's comment likely reflects a misunderstanding of international law and institutions as well.

This of course raises another important question: Shouldn't presidential candidates and their advisers be better informed about the basics of foreign affairs?