One has to admire Mitt Romney’s chutzpah, even if it has meant he has already false-footed the first stop on a three-country, international caravan designed to prove he is ready for the big tent, the centre court, and the main event - in foreign policy terms. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look at how it has been going on Romney’s magical mystery tour so far.
The US and UK have been allies since the beginning of the 20th century, the two nations enjoy many of each other’s popular and high-culture icons, numerous television shows, and a language. Well, more or less. Millions of Americans have ancestry from the British Isles and the British upper class has been marrying the daughters of America’s wealthy since Edith Wharton wrote about it over a century years ago. Given Romney’s own Olympics history, how hard could it have been for him to have immersed himself in the general good feeling and come out a winner on the international news stage? Thus it seemed logical, even inevitable, that Romney’s first international beauty-pageant turn would be in London, just hours before the Games began. Apparently, though, it was a lot harder than it looked.
Romney’s major tasks in this trip are three quite simple, straightforward ones. First, get some essentially cost-free international exposure with sympathetic foreign audiences, serving as colourful backdrops that will play well with the hometown folks as news clips on TV. Then create a bit of daylight between Barack Obama and himself by proactively setting out his foreign policy agenda. Finally, do this without violating the longtime, unwritten rule – a kind of American prime directive - that “politics stops at the water’s edge”. This means opponents do not criticise the president whenever they are abroad.
Well, he certainly has started with a bang. Just before he left the US, Romney gave a speech that spoke to maintaining – even adding to - national military strength, the importance of American exceptionalism and the need to support Israel, oppose Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions and be tough on Chinese international economic positions. Then it was off to London where he promptly got himself in a public food fight with the British.
First he told the British their security arrangements for the games were “a concern”; then he admired the view from the “backside” of 10 Downing Street; trumpeted his meeting with MI-6 (the very heart of secretive indirectness and discretion, UK style); hosted a fundraiser with bankers under investigation for nasty stuff and then had one of his advisors bless his background by praising his Anglo-Saxon heritage. (Was that a veiled swipe at Obama’s own rather different heritage and an appeal to racial troglodytes or what?) By the time Mitt had finished this faux pas quickstep, he had also managed to explain he really wasn’t there to cheer on his wife’s horse in its Olympic appearance, that he wasn’t, in fact, involved with the horse in any way. “What horse?” he seemed to say. Then he barely avoided saying “what wife?” by the time that particular dance was over.
The Brits, collectively, were, as they say, not amused. David Cameron countered with a remark about how much easier it was to hold an Olympics “in the middle of nowhere” (a.k.a Salt Lake City); London’s Boris Johnson roared; and the British press offered up banner headlines like “Mitt the Twit”. This hasn’t played that well back home, either. Captive conservative commentators on Fox News were shattered. “You have to shake your head,” Karl Rove said. And Charles Krauthammer pronounced Mitt’s verbal miscues to be “unbelievable, it’s beyond human understanding, it’s incomprehensible. I’m out of adjectives.”
As far as that horse was concerned, as is now well known, his wife’s hobby is to own horses trained to compete in those fancy dressage equestrian events. Dressage, for those who aren’t familiar with the sport, is something like artistic gymnastics or synchronized swimming, but for a horse and rider, although the horse seems to do most of the work. Ann Romney apparently got into the hobby when she found the rhythm of it helped her keep her multiple sclerosis in check. Although husband Mitt kept backing away from any connection to the horse, it turned out he personally picked the music to accompany its performance in London and managed to deduct $77,000 for its care and feeding as a business expense on income taxes. Really.
Maureen Dowd, admittedly no fan of Mitt, in writing about Romney’s involvement with the horse, managed to hit a perfect bullseye. As she said in Sunday’s column in the New York Times, “In his interview with Brian Williams (NBC TV evening news anchor) in London, Romney couldn’t resist giving himself the laurels for saving the Salt Lake City Games by analysing whether the British ones were off by a hair, or a hire.”
“Then he tried to scamper back to the obligatory common-man script and ended up looking clumsy and the one thing he most certainly is not: unuxorious. After going all the way to London to see the Olympics, he decides he won’t watch his wife’s mare, Rafalca, compete in horse ballet? He tries to win the political horse race by going to the Games, which are literally a race in which he has a horse, and then feigns disengagement?” Did we just see Mitt Romney throw his wife under a bus, politically speaking?
“‘This is Ann’s sport,’ Romney told Williams dismissively. ‘I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it. I will not be watching the event.’ He came across like a wazzock, as the Daily Telegraph called him, using a British insult for a daft know-it-all.” And that was in a country that has that vaunted special relationship with America for generations and whose arguably most illustrious prime minister, Winston Churchill, had an American mother?
After this slightly less than stellar adventure in Merry Olde Englande, Mitt was off to Israel. Uh oh. Quicksand alert here, the sign over the airport skyway probably should say. First it was a plan to host a fire-breathing fundraising dinner in the midst of the solemn fast day of Tishah b’Av, the day that marks the destruction of the First and Second Jerusalem temples as well as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
This has now been turned into a breakfast on Monday, but only along with the awkward backtracking from an earlier pledge to allow the press to attend his fundraisers. Pundits are of the opinion this was either because of a possible embarrassment from the public exposure of some of the attendees or that Romney would be saying things about the US-Israel relationship in a putative Romney administration he didn’t want to see slathered across newspapers the next morning – as an overreach and a public slap at Obama.
Either way, with its initial tin ear to the subtleties of the Jewish religious calendar, this fundraiser has been aimed at Republican-supporting American Jews sometimes or generally resident in Israel – or who were keen to make the trek to this event, like Sheldon Adelson. Adelson has promised millions of dollars to various Republican superPACs – money he has largely earned, we note, by operating casinos in Macau under licenses from a communist government in China, just in case people weren’t paying attention to that point. One has to wonder how that parses with Romney’s often-expressed desire to be much tougher on China trade? Late Sunday, the Romney team changed its mind yet again and opened the fundraiser breakfast to the media after all, presumably as a result of the poor publicity generated from their earlier decision to close off the event to the media.
Romney’s Israel stopover also has another set of hard to gauge up- and downsides. One is largely a function of the place of Benjamin Netanyahu in the larger texture of US-Israel relations – and Iran’s impact on that relationship. The others are the ongoing destruction, chaos and civil war in nearby Syria, as well as the impact of Egypt’s nascent Muslim Brotherhood government on regional stability.
Meanwhile, in his foreign policy speech in Jerusalem on Sunday, Romney was set to assert as chief executive he would “respect” an Israeli decision for unilateral military action to prevent Tehran from gaining nuclear capability as the media reported Romney was already drawing back from his senior advisor’s earlier suggestion that he favoured American military action against Iran.
Speaking on CBS-TV’s Face the Nation news programme, shortly before his actual speech, Romney said: “I’ll use my own words and that is I respect the right of Israel to defend itself and we stand with Israel. We’re two nations that come together in peace and that want to see Iran being dissuaded from its nuclear folly. Because I'm on foreign soil, I don't want to be creating new foreign policy for my country or in any way to distance myself from the foreign policy of our nation, but we respect the right of a nation to defend itself”. The advance copy of his speech adds: “make no mistake: The ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defences. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way.”
In response to these comments, Democratic senator Dick Durbin told CNN’s State of the Union, Obama “has understood that the two choices between all-out war and Iran having a nuclear weapon are choices we don't want to face. I understand Mitt Romney is on this political tour doing this fundraiser in Israel, but the point is the president has had to sit down as he has over and over again with Prime Minister Netanyahu and work out a sound policy to avoid the prospect of war.”
Romney and Netanyahu were acquainted with each other years ago when they both worked at the Boston Consulting Group. Romney’s expression of a long-abiding friendship seems to have been a bit more all-embracing than Netanyahu’s. The latter is reported to have said they were “acquainted” with each other, rather than boon companions. For Romney, of course, tying the knot tightly with Netanyahu is important in that it puts the two of them in sync in confronting Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions. Romney has publicly pledged that if he is president, Iran will not have the bomb, while if Obama remains president, Iran will.
Standing fast with Israel (something slightly different than being as one with Bibi) conforms to Romney’s pitch that he – unlike the incumbent president’s views - is the candidate who is for a strong America, an America that stands by its allies, and that Israel is the US’s most reliable ally in the Middle East. Concurrently, the Romney pitch is also that Obama has surrendered independence of action vis-à-vis Syria to a stalemated, toothless UN and that under Obama’s administration the US has failed to exercise leadership in Egypt, where a fundamentalist-leaning government will cause no end of trouble down the road. In sum, Barack Obama has let it all come unravelled on his watch by his irresoluteness.
One might logically choose to assume that the target of all of this is to round up the votes of Jewish Americans fearful of a lack of American support for Israel. But, of course, American Jews are not solidly lined up behind Netanyahu by any means, as many see him as a profoundly divisive figure who has betrayed the promise of Yitzhak Rabin. Moreover, for most American Jews – one of the two most reliably Democratic voting groups in America, African Americans are the other – domestic social welfare and related policies are often more important than putative foreign policy positions over what might be in the future.
In any case, American Jews have too few votes, except perhaps in Florida and Ohio, to have any real effect on the outcome in states where the vote for president will be a contest. It’s those battleground states that matter, not places like California or New York that are already reliably and safely Democratic.
No, the real object of this posturing about resolute strength in the face of the gathering forces of evil in the Middle East is the fundamentalist Christian vote in America. These voters decisively turned away from the Democrats in the late 1960s onward and became increasingly and reliably Republican. Now, in fact, this group has become the decisive voter segment in Republican presidential wins since 1968. With 35 million or so votes, and an unwavering support for Israel by virtue of an eschatological belief in the imminence of “The Rapture” and thus the need to back Israel as part of that final upheaval, the “fundamentalist-charismatic-born again-Christian” voters are Romney’s real target from his tough stance while in Israel.
His problem is that while they have become reliably Republican, they are barely sold on Romney, given his adherence to Mormonism and his on-again/off-again positions on conservative social-values issues so many fundamentalists have such strong feelings about as part of their political DNA. His challenge is to get them not just on board generally, but committed to voting on 6 November.
But the challenge remains that overstepping his critique of Obama might put him in hot water for having gone overboard on partisan criticism beyond the water’s edge. Accordingly, fine-tuning his message (and how it is subsequently reported by those pesky media types) while he is in Israel is going to be a challenging task for Romney, his handlers and his spinmeisters. If their adventure in London serves as any guide, this will be a wild ride.
Then there is still Poland at the end of the journey. Here the visit has been picked because it was assumed Romney could lob some low-explosive but noisy practice hand grenades in Russia’s general direction – it being hard to find a Pole who is a Russophile nowadays – without having to take direct shots at Obama. Of course the temptation, there, will be to take aim at Obama’s reorienting of a missile defence programme early in his administration that the Poles and the Czechs both feel unfairly disadvantaged them. As such, the temptation of overreach for Romney exists in Poland as well.
Meanwhile, Obama’s troops are basically holding back on capitalising on Romney’s trip, waiting to see how the wind blows on his travels overall so they can chastise him for his excess zeal and partisanship in meetings with foreign leaders – or point to his fumbles as yet more evidence he simply isn’t ready for prime time. The AP’s coverage’s first judgment went this way: “Mitt Romney struggled Friday to stem political fallout at home after insulting Britain's handling of the London Games. The stumble at least briefly pitted the Republican presidential candidate against America's strongest ally while limiting his ability to capitalise on more troubling US economic news. At the same time, President Barack Obama used his office to try to take advantage of the Republican's missteps abroad, praising Britain for its Olympics preparations one day and sending money to Israel the next - just as Romney prepared to visit that nation.”
Taken together with the attacks on Romney for his wealth, the Cayman Islands financial hidey-holes and his more general secretiveness over his financial position, as well as an alleged job-destroying record at Bain, the pointing to Romney as a bumbling amateur abroad could begin the process of nailing down their own candidate’s re-election. Now, if only the health of the economy would co-operate a bit more with them. DM
- In jam, Romney tries not to make new Iran policy at the AP
- Mitt’s Olympic Meddle, a column by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times
- Adviser: Romney would strike back against Iran at the AP
- Romney and Obama Strain to Show Gap on Foreign Policy at the New York Times
- Romney in Britain - Diplomatic, offensive in the Economist
- Romney isn’t out to make the world swoon, a column by neo-con Middle East specialist Fouad Ajami in the Washington Post
- Romney arrives after rough start to foreign tour at the Jerusalem Post
- Romney camp hopes Israel trip secures evangelical, Jewish votes at the Los Angeles Times
- Mitt Romney's Olympic mishap at the BBC
- Mitt Romney visits Israel to vow closer ties at the BBC
- PM tells Romney: Sanctions have not moved Iran one iota at the Jerusalem Post
- Romney kicks off Israel trip with Netanyahu meeting at the Jerusalem Post
- Romney campaign closes Israel fundraiser to press at Politico
- Mitt Romney eyes gains among Jewish voters at Politico
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives at 10 Downing Street to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, July 26, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed