By Ernest Corea
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has returned home from a three country tour that does not appear to have done him much good. Romney’s foreign policy Grand Tour of the UK, Israel and Poland was expected to be a voyage of exposure. He would expose his foreign policy gravitas to his hosts. They would expose their expectations of American foreign policy to him.
It turned out, however, to be a wrong-footed foray. In under a week, he managed to rile the British and humiliate the Palestinians. In Poland, a member of his communications team created a public relations fiasco.
Romney’s American donors who were with him in Israel will continue to pour out their support to help eject President Barack Obama from the White House. Some voters whose thoughts are in Israel while their bodies are in the US will vote for him, as they are likely to have done in any case. Beyond that? Not much.
One of Romney’s first public tasks on reaching London was to face an interview with Brian Williams, the affable anchor of NBC Nightly News. One of his questions was about preparations for the UK Olympics, a question that could have been anticipated because British organisers had faced a number of problems, and Romney has a record of having managed an Olympics in Utah.
Romney could have chosen to reply with any one of several options from stonewalling through diplomatic mumbo jumbo to outright praise. Giving his hosts the impression that he was questioning their capacities was not one of the options. That’s what he chose. Reports of various problems encountered by the organisers were, he told Williams, “disconcerting.”
But that alone would not do. He was, after all, the manager of Utah’s Olympic Upsurge. He had to say it all, as in: “…There are three parts that make Games successful. Number One, of course, are the athletes. That’s what overwhelmingly the Games are about. Number Two are the volunteers. And they’ll have great volunteers here. But number three are the people of the country. Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment? And that is something which we only find out once the Games actually begin.”
To suggest to the Brits that there might be any question about their uniting to face a national challenge is an act of folly. Remember how Churchill reacted when he learnt that a French general had said that in “in three weeks, England would have its neck wrung like a chicken”? Churchill: snapped back: “Some chicken. Some neck.”
Romney’s inept comments inspired the British in general and the media in particular to let loose a blitz of angry scorn. Boisterous Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, used the comments of “some guy named Mitt Romney” to rouse a large urban crowd into united, spirited, and highly vocal support for the Olympics organisers.
The media got all fired up. “Nowhere Man,” The Times called Romney. “Party Pooper,” said the Daily Mail. “Mitt the Twit,” declared The Sun.
The ripple of derision expanded in concentric circles, as the media leapt on Romney for addressing Edward Milliband, leader of the opposition, as Mr. Leader, and said that he had enjoyed the panoramic view from the “backside” of the British Prime Minister David Cameron’s official residence..
When Romney, breaking the bounds of diplomatic discretion, announced that he had visited the head of Britain’s super-secret MI-6, a spokesperson for the intelligence agency’s head said that he “meets many people but we don’t give a running commentary on any of these private meetings.”
The most punishing comment, however, came from Cameron who said: that the UK Olympics were being held “in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world….Of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.” Enough said.
So, on to Israel, where Romney was expected to make a soft landing – and he did. His old friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed him with the shared affection of corporate sector buddies who had maintained their connections over the years. Some of his most generous donors were at hand. He had his solemn photo-op at the Western Wall.
In such friendly company, Romney must have felt comfortable enough to be frank and indiscreet. He named Jerusalem as Israel’s real capital, although the official US position held by both Republican and Democratic administrations has been and remains: “The status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. We continue to work with the parties to resolve this issue and others in a way that is just and fair, and respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.” (The US embassy and others are located in Tel Aviv.)
Palestinian official, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said that Romney’s statement on Jerusalem was unhelpful to peace negotiations, pointing out that it “contradicted the previous positions held by the American administration”.
Romney also commented favorably on the Israeli economy to the detriment of Palestinian efforts at economic development. London’s Guardian quoted him as saying: “As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognise the power of at least culture and a few other things.” Among the few other things were “a climate of innovation, the Jewish history of thriving in adversity, and the hand of providence.”
Palestinian leaders were angered by the assumption that their economic plight was caused by their own culture and a downward push by the “hand of providence” – not by a grueling occupation and blockade. Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said of Romney’s demeaning words: “It is a racist statement, and this man doesn’t realise that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.
“It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people. He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”
Romney is unaware or cannot acknowledge that economic conditions in Palestinian territory are held in thrall by a grueling occupation. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have both said that the Palestinian economy cannot flourish until the occupation and blockade end. Amb. Palitha Kohana, chairman of the UN’s committee investigating Israeli practices in occupied territory (established in December 1968) said after a recent visit to Gaza:
“In Gaza, imports remain at less than 50 percent of pre-blockade levels. …..Israel’s near total ban of exports stifles economic growth and makes job opportunities scarce. Between 30 and 40 percent of Gazans are unemployed…..Business has ground to a standstill with little possibility of importing new equipment or exporting products”
But Romney’s task was done. All that was left was to decide how best to use the enhanced campaign funding that was expected to roll in.
Kiss my what?
Romney cruised through an effective program in Poland where he was expected to assure that country’s leadership that if elected he would be a stronger ally than Obama.
In addition to meeting top members of Poland’s current leadership, he also called on Lech Walesa the former trade union leader and president. Walesa, in effect, “endorsed” Romney and opposed Obama. Members of the legendary trade union Solidarity did not share their former leader’s view.
Solidarity issued a public statement which said, in part: “Solidarity was not involved in organizing Romney’s meeting with Walesa and did not invite him to visit Poland.”
“Regretfully, we were informed by our friends from the American headquarters of (the American trade union federation) AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million employees… that Mitt Romney supported attacks on trade unions and employees’ rights,” Solidarity added.
Undaunted, Romney moved on. One of his last official acts was to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He was returning to his limousine and motorcade when the traveling press was told that Romney would not be fielding questions, and they should return to their buses. The press was by now fed up. They resented being routinely denied access to the candidate although their purpose in going along for the ride – at the expense of their employers – was precisely to have access to and write about him. During the entire foreign policy tour Romney had taken only three questions from them. Obama, on a similar tour in 2008, took twenty-five.
Frustrated and angry, they ignored the directions of the Romney campaign’s media manager for the tour, Rick Gorka, turned away from their buses and walked in the direction of Romney’s limousine, while shouting questions at him. The questions included such “naturals” as Governor Romney, are you concerned about some of the mishaps on your trip? Are you going to issue a statement for the Palestinians? What about your gaffes?
Gorka was obviously unprepared to deal with the bedlam. A placatory “C’mon guys, give him a break” approach might have helped. Instead he did what will go down in the records as his celebrated imitation of a drill sergeant going berserk at boot camp. He is said to have shouted at the media: “Kiss my ass. Show some respect. This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect. Shove off.” Like his boss who was disconcerted at the beginning of the tour he was disconcerted at its end.
Elections are rarely won or lost abroad. Consider the example of Indira Gandhi. The western-dominated international community had barely ended their sighs of relief at the thought that she was out of their hair, after defeat at a general election, when Indian voters sent her roaring back into office with a landslide victory.
Or consider this: Churchill and his party were defeated in a parliamentary election after he had provided Britain with awe-inspiring leadership during the Second World War. Pierre Trudeau was a hugely admired and respected figure abroad at the same time that he was losing a parliamentary election at home.
These real-life examples must offer some solace to Romney’s supporters who wonder whether his mumbled, foreign policy tour will tarnish his image and erode his support at home. Not to worry. The British media has derided him as a rude naïf, the Palestinian leadership considers his comments racist, and Solidarity, Poland’s legendary trade union, thinks of him as an union-buster. But what counts will be the responses and reactions of American voters to the choice between two ways forward that the contenders offer them.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.