One of Mitt Romney’s weaknesses in his bid for the U.S. Presidency has been his lack of foreign policy credentials. To this end, he embarked on a tour last week of three U.S. allies, with stops in England, Israel and Poland. If his goal was to establish himself as a serious and credible player on the international stage, he failed miserably. In 2008, when Obama traveled to Europe on a similar tour to establish his foreign policy legitimacy, he received standing ovations, and by all accounts acquitted himself admirably. Romney, on the other hand, barely managed to avoid sparking an international incident and earned the nickname “Mitt the Twit”–and that was awarded to him by a Murdoch-owned newspaper.
It’s hard to understand how Romney managed to screw up what should have been the easiest leg of the tour. Of all three countries, this was the one with whom we have a shared language, a common cultural heritage, and the closest relationship. With all of those factors in his favor, it’s hard to fathom how the best thing one can say about his London visit was that he didn’t actually start a war. The details are now well known and have been rehashed repeatedly, but as a matter of general diplomacy, Mitt managed to fumble the ball not once but repeatedly. He insulted their handling of the Olympics, forgot the name of the opposition leader, and annoyed the Prime Minister. He compounded all of this by rubbing their faces in American Exceptionalism, telling them the last thing the U.S. needs is to become like Europe.
Conservative apologists have pointed out that the security and immigration agent concerns were issues that had been blasted by the British press since before Romney arrived, that in fact naming the opposition leader by title instead of name was “traditional”, and that it’s a commonly accepted tenet among conservatives that “European style [insert example of socialism]” is commonly viewed as a wrong direction among conservatives in America, but all of this doesn’t explain why he would say it while visiting Europe. Going to a foreign country and telling them you have concerns about their management of the massive international event they are currently hosting, insulting their politicians and criticizing their entire approach to governance simply isn’t considered good form by any objective measure; the mystery isn’t why Romney received such a poor reception from the English, it’s why anyone would have ever thought that any of the mistakes he made should be viewed as even remotely acceptable. These were rookie errors, and he’s supposed to be playing in the big leagues, now.
Politicians like Bobby Jindal, whose futile efforts to audition for the role of vice president are equal parts cute and sad, tried defending Romney by saying “He isn’t trying to win European voters”, which is great and all but what he was trying to do was prove to American voters that he wasn’t a complete idiot when it came to managing foreign policy. I don’t see how he made that argument credibly by managing to offend and alienate our closest ally. If Romney can’t even get along with countries we’re friends with, how on Earth does he expect to manage Russia, China, and Iran?
While Mitt’s trip to Israel may have appeared to have gone marginally better–hey, he didn’t piss off the host government or the majority of the population–I’d actually say that the Israel leg was the one that utterly disqualifies him in the realm of foreign policy. He started out by giving a speech in Jerusalem, where he said he thought the U.S. should break with longstanding national and international policy and protocol and move our embassy. While Israel likes to claim Jerusalem as its capital, the seat of Israeli government sits in Tel Aviv, which is the widely recognized capital, and Mitt blithely ignored or disregarded the fact that according to international law, Israel only has legal claim to West Jerusalem–East Jerusalem is officially Palestinian.
It’s hard to imagine a gaffe more likely to provoke a violent, angry reaction than declaring that his solution to this aspect of disputed Palestinian territory was already decided in his book, but I’m really glad that Romney didn’t decide to tour Taiwan to prove his bona fides; if there is such a blunder, it would probably involve the Chinese and a declaration of unconditional support for Taiwanese independence. To date, there have been no violent Palestinian reactions to his statement, probably because he’s still officially just a pretender, and not the actual president. Just imagine the havoc he could wreak if his off-the-cuff ignorance of foreign affairs actually carried weight; he could be sparking warsw on accident before breakfast every day. Ironically, the harshest criticism for this came from China, who claimed the Mittster’s idiotic pandering to a crowd of foreign locals “[was] likely to worsen the already tense Mideast situation, and even reignite a war between Palestinians and Israelis.” So stay tuned, “Didn’t start a war” may in fact be a premature evaluation of Mitt Romney’s Fun, Fabulous, Flying, Foreign Fiasco Tour™.
He went on to praise the Israelis for their economic success, contrasting it with that of the lazy, shiftless Palestinians–who, for reasons of cultural inferiority, have been unable to build a thriving economy equal to that of the more prosperous Jewish state. While he compared them to the indolent Mexicans south of our own border, I think the comparison might have been a little unfair, seeing as how the Mexicans don’t have to contend with the challenges imposed by Israel, such as strict travel and import/export provisions and a complete economic barricade of all of their ports. So maybe the argument that Romney was disparaging the Palestinians is overblown; he may have been complimenting them, in his own backhanded and socially inept way. All of that aside, the real issue is that this was, like his Jerusalem comment, purely a function of political calculus. Romney recognizes that nobody ever lost an American campaign by bashing or insulting Muslims, and the voter bloc he’s after is the large chunk of Jewish Americans who traditionally vote Democratic. He may–and probably does–think that the Palestinians are inferior, culturally, ethnically, and religiously, but what motivated all of his comments in Israel was the cold-hearted and cynical valuation of their potential allure to American Jews, not any kind of real sentiment or philosophical affinity he may have. I am coming to see Romney as the most coldly, pragmatically manipulative politician in modern history, even eclipsing Nixon–who was at least capable of raw, human emotion. I don’t believe Romney is. But even all of this was not why I considered Israel to be the site of his most significant failure.
It was his capitulation to Netanyahu. Romney was all set to meet with Shelly Yacimovich, at one point the leading opposition leader, the current leader of the Labor party. This meeting had been arranged over the course of months, and the Labor party even suggested cancelling it when Yacimovich’s status changed as a result of internal politics. It was Romney’s team who insisted on keeping the meeting as planned, and Romney’s team who cancelled it unceremoniously at the behest of Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the meeting. Israel’s leading newspaper, Haaretz, reported that Romney is apparently Netanyahu’s bitch–not an auspicious beginning to a relationship that would be crucial if Romney was to be elected.
It should be noted that only in America is the head of state–and anyone who aspires to the role, such as Mitt Romney–expected to kowtow to a foreign nation, as U.S. Presidential candidates are expected to do with Israel. This is a national spectacle that we see every time a new face appears on the national stage, a ritual dance where the potential “leader” is expected to prove his or her loyalty to Israel by either traveling to Israel or appearing before AIPAC in Washington, as Obama did in 2008 to demonstrate that he was sufficiently committed to Israeli interests to qualify him to be president of the United States. It should also be noted that no Israeli leader needs to demonstrate their commitment to the interests of America, nor any other country’s but Israels, to validate their qualifications for leadership. Nor does any other country have an “other country” test for viability. Only in America does a candidate for head of state need to prove they are sufficiently committed to the interests of a foreign nation to have any shot at public office.
Still, Romney took this a step further when he actually cancelled a meeting at the behest of a foreign leader. This was a test, and he failed. If Netanyahu was testing Romney to see how pliable he’d be as president, Mitt proved a highly malleable subject. While it’s not know what was said, the facts are that a long anticipated meeting was cancelled on short notice, and the general assumption in Israel is that it was at the Prime Minister’s request. That Romney cancelled the request is significant; it demonstrates a candidate who is operating on an agenda of purely political showmanship, devoid of any principle or operational values. Yacimovich is politically expendable; the meeting was likely to hold little sway with American Jewish voters, while Netanyahu has the potential to be a game changer–so do as he requests, ditch the meeting. The fallout at home will likely be slight, the political payout is potentially huge, assuming it gets a push from Netanyahu in the general election.
That’s unlikely to happen, though. Obama retains a winning lead in electoral votes, and the poll numbers haven’t shifted in months. If the election were held today, Romney would lose, and Netanyahu is too shrewd to risk burning any political capital on either candidate while the outcome of the election is still in doubt. Nor are either of the slights against the Palestinian people going to be any major issue–nobody ever lost an American election insulting or bashing Muslims, after all.
Romney didn’t screw up in Poland, although that leg of the trip wasn’t without its disappointments. He had a relatively uneventful stay, and it would have gone off more or less without a hitch if one of his aides hadn’t decided to keep the streak alive by popping off at reporters during a visit to a wreath laying ceremony. No word yet on whether or not the person is still employed by the campaign, but it’s hard to imagine they have started firing staffers for damaging the campaign this late in the game. The only real surprise to come from his visit to Poland was an endorsement from Lech Walesa. Once the proud, defiant leader of the Polish labor union Solidarity, which 30 years ago brought the Soviet communists to their knees, Walesa praised Romney and declared that his was the kind of leadership we need today. His former labor union disagreed vehemently, noting that Romney’s record on labor is an assault on worker’s rights, and distanced themselves from their former leader’s comments unequivocally. Lech Walesa may endorse Romney, but he speaks for nobody but himself in that regard.
In the end, there’s really no way to put a happy face on Romney’s tour and call it a success in any meaningful sense. If his goal was to prove he’s ready to represent the country on the national stage, he accomplished exactly the opposite. His embarrassing turn in London was an exercise in how not to conduct diplomacy, and Fox and Friends defense aside, the fact is that an American president can no longer expect the world to just put up with the fact that he’s an ignorant asshole. We used all that leeway up under the Bush administration, towards the end of which countries were snubbing us blatantly and maneuvering around us. A “President Romney” won’t get a first term to demonstrate his ability to negotiate the world stage like Bush did before countries start revolting; if anything, his foreign policy tour has shortened what little time he may have hoped for. If Romney couldn’t manage the English, the learning curve only gets steeper once he gets to France and Germany.
The real failure though, the one I consider a disqualifier, was his disastrous turn in Israel. Although it didn’t get as much attention or ridicule, nor was it treated as quite as bad in the press, I consider the Israeli leg to be the one that makes a Romney presidency a truly ominous prospect. There is no more credible player or negotiator in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict than the United States, outside either of the two principles. The primary currency has been American objectivity. Israeli/Palestinian relations languished under Bush, whose tendencies were clearly lopsided, and Romney has demonstrated that under his administration they would be as bad at best, and likely a whole lot worse. Bush never went out of his way to deliberately insult the Palestinians, which Romney did repeatedly. He may have disregarded them and ignored them, but he didn’t intentionally offend them just to score a few cheap political points, and never casually handed away occupied territory in such an ignorantly cavalier manner as did Romney with his comments on moving the embassy.
Most importantly, when Romney cancelled an appointment at Netanyahu’s behest, he signaled an alarming lack of backbone and character, and more importantly, a disturbing absences of leadership or strength. I believe that Netanyahu was testing Romney, trying to see just how much he could make the man do, and I believe that from an American perspective, Romney failed miserably. Obama would have never just cancelled a meeting on short notice because a foreign leader snapped his fingers; Romney didn’t hesitate to do so. Newsweek apparently nailed it when they labelled him a wimp. Insulting one ally, prostrating himself before another, the Romney tour was an unmitigated disaster as an attempt to portray him ready for the mantle of power.
The president of the United States is our chief diplomat, and his goal during any trip abroad should be to represent and advance American interests. I don’t blame Netanyahu for acting as he did, because he is acting in what he believes to be the interests of his country, Israel. His loyalties are clear, and they are not with us. This isn’t a criticism, on the contrary: every national leader should act in the interests of his own country first. My point is, Romney didn’t. He acted in the interests of political expediency, he risked igniting further violence, he breached international protocol, he behaved recklessly and impulsively, and all in his own interests above all others. This isn’t the behavior of a seasoned, ready politician. This is amateur hour politics, writ large on the world stage.
Willard Mitt Romney is not ready to be president of the United States. He has advanced, in accordance with the Peter Principle,l to his level of incompetence. The only question that remains in this election is whether or not the legions of Obama haters, ready to vote for any idiot regardless of the outcome or potential damage to the country, outnumber the people who realize just what a ridiculously stupid train wreck is in store for us if Mitt Romney wins in November.