The multiday trip was designed to be a smooth and easy way for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to burnish his foreign policy credentials.
Countless presidents have made a similar journey for a similar objective. In 2008, Barack Obama swept through Europe to demonstrate his popularity and competency to American voters in front of a foreign audience. Romney, a man who has not had to deal with foreign policy issues in past jobs, had the same thing in mind last week when he traveled to Britain, Israel and Poland, three strong American allies, to shake hands with dignitaries and shore up his support overseas.
That trip, however, has been anything but easy for Romney and his campaign. A series of off the cuff remarks got the former governor in trouble in London when he openly questioned whether the British government and its people were ready to host the summer Olympic Games. The comment sparked an array of complaints and denunciations from British parliamentarians and Prime Minister David Cameron himself. The British press was especially hard on Romney, equating his concerns to a cheap shot at the nation’s ability to appreciate its month in the limelight.
But it was Romney’s final message in Israel that was perhaps his most damning, at least from the perspective of the people who live in that region. Speaking at a high donor event before his departure to Poland, Romney celebrated the many achievements and successes of Israel as a nation.
At first, Romney said all the right things, calling Israel one of the most hardworking and entrepreneurial nations on the planet. “You look at Israel,” he said, “and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here.” It was a glowing remark from someone who holds Israel in extremely high regard and one clearly constructed to gain the support of the Israeli donors in attendance.
But what was supposed to be an article of praise to a solid American ally quickly turned into an insult to the Palestinians next door.
And as you come here and you see the GDP per capita for instance in Israel which is about $21,000 and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality.
Romney went on to cite culture as a unique factor in this difference. “Culture makes all the difference,” he insisted, a phrase that was meant to applaud Israeli innovation but raised questions as to what Romney truly meant.
Saeb Erekat, the senior advisor to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, quickly took the press and criticized those comments as “racist.” He wondered aloud whether Romney genuinely understood the region, its history and its people.
On an ordinary day, such a strong rebuttal from a Palestinian leader would not be such a big deal. Every American president, including Barack Obama, has had his fair share of arguments with the interim Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, most recently on Washington’s lack of willingness to press the Israelis to stop settlement construction. But for Mitt Romney, the criticism is different, for these are the same people that he is most likely to deal if elected in November. The words are unlikely to have any effect in the national psyche as Americans prepare their votes but what it will do is provide the Obama campaign with another piece of ammunition to hammer Romney on.
Economics and job growth will dominate the presidential elections but how to invest American resources in the world at large will be an issue, however small, as the race comes down to the wire. Romney’s comments in Israel could very well give some people who care about foreign policy more reason to distance themselves from his world outlook.
Every candidate has made speeches that deviate from the script. Sometimes, impromptu conversations can get a presidential hopeful into trouble. Romney’s impromptu act, however, was more damaging than usual, not necessarily because it will cost him votes back in the United States but because it could make a vital part of his job as president more difficult. Every president in his honeymoon period wants to establish healthy relationships with foreign leaders. The former governor’s gaffe in Israel could worsen that relationship with the Palestinians before it even gets off the ground.