By Monish Tourangbam
A speech at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a week-long trip to England, Israel and Poland opened a window to the worldview of the presumptive Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Though he wrapped up the trip with a relatively successful speech in Warsaw, analysts could not stop talking of the trail of gaffes he left behind in England and Israel. The trip was supposed to be a win-win situation, with Romney visiting countries that are staunch US allies, where all he needed to do was to please the hosts. But instead, he has come under fire for repeated political gaffes and offering no substance when it came to delineating how his foreign policy intended to be different from that of President Obama’s.
Romney started his much publicised trip on the wrong foot when he questioned Britain’s preparedness for the Olympic Games, commenting that the preparedness he had seen was “disconcerting” and that it was “hard to know just how well it will turn out.” As expected, the British political class as well as the media slammed the Republican candidate. British Prime Minister David Cameron quickly retorted, “We are holding an Olympic Games 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,” referring to the Salk Lake City, which hosted the Winter Olympics that Romney oversaw in 2002.
Moreover, Romney also told reporters that he had an undisclosed meeting with the head of the MI-6, Britain’s secret intelligence agency. The British press also seized on this acknowledgement as another gaffe, as they commented that visiting dignitaries typically do not discuss their private meetings with the MI6 Chief. Michael Tomasky, a liberal columnist and the special correspondent of the Newsweek, commenting on Romney’s sojourn in London wrote, “…it makes me wonder: if elected, Romney is going to have to work hand-in-gloves with Prime Minister David Cameron and other world leaders on the ongoing global financial crisis and other issues. What unintended offenses are going to tumble out of his mouth then, when he’s representing our nation on the world stage?”
Romney’s foreign tour was a carefully scripted one, right from the choice of the countries to the limited questions from the media (he took just three questions from the travelling American press corp in London and tried to limit the use of audio recorders in Poland), but even then, the Presidential candidate managed to commit some easily avoidable errors. Romney was auditioning for the Commander-in-Chief’s role and the trip was meant to show him in the best light, meeting world leaders, proving his ability to handle foreign affairs smoothly. But the trip does not seem to have accomplished any of that. Republicans argue that the gaffes were inconsequential and would be forgotten fast as the campaign nears its final leg. Influential conservative commentators, like Charles Krauthammer, have labeled Romney’s trip abroad as “excellent” and “a major substantive success”. But, Romney clearly failed to capitalize on the international attention that was given to his trip. Contrast this to the tour that President Obama made four years ago as a mere candidate. He answered at least 25 questions over four press conferences and sat down with network TV news correspondents for seven interviews. Moreover, he visited hotspots like Iraq and Afghanistan, and close to 200,000 people came out to listen to him in Berlin.
It is not hard to discern that candidates’ trips abroad are more concerned with how they would translate into votes on the election day rather than with diplomacy. For one, Romney’s speeches in Jerusalem were directed more towards Jewish voters in America rather than offering any vision on Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. Hence, Romney did not flinch while proclaiming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or while commenting that Israelis were culturally superior to the Palestinians’ which accounted for their economic success. Palestinians, as expected, were hardly pleased. Saeb Erekat, a prominent Palestinian official, retorted: “What is this man doing here? Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture. Isn’t this racism?”
Many commentators have criticized Romney for completely ignoring the hardships that the Palestinians have suffered living in territories which are highly fortified and cut off as a result of Israel’s security measures. But then, it is not rocket science to see that Romney was there not to garner the goodwill of the Palestinian people, but to try and scrap away some of the Jewish voters who usually go to Democratic and shore up support among evangelical Christians who have been wary of Romney’s candidacy. Romney also utilized the platform that Israel provided to emphasize his hardline approach towards Iran that he claims differentiates him from the incumbent President. Calling Iran “the leading state sponsor of terrorism and the most destabilising nation in the world”, Romney reiterated that all measures should be employed “to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course”. “It is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for American to stand with you,” he added. Now, how does this measure on the “I am different from President Obama” scale? In fact, this is exactly what the Obama administration has been doing: Tightening the noose of economic sanctions around Iran while keeping all options open, including the military option.
The Romney campaign has been emphasising that President Obama has not visited Israel even once after occupying office. But then, not having visited the country in his first term can be no proof of Obama distancing himself from Israel. One of the most popular American Presidents, Ronald Reagan, a Republican, never visited Israel and President George W. Bush, another Republican President, visited Israel in the last year of his office. Obama received 78 per cent of the Jewish votes in the 2008 election, but a nationwide Gallup poll in June showed him down to 64 per cent against Romney’s 29 per cent (showing a narrow leeway for the Republicans to try and wean away disgruntled and undecided Jewish voters and narrow that gap further). Will Romney’s hardening stance against Iran and unabashed support for Israel translate into Jewish voters? That will only be known in November. But Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, said that Obama’s strong support from Jewish voters in 2008 would be replicated this year, regardless of Romney’s visit to Jerusalem. “There’s always a maximum of maybe 25-30 percent of Jews who really vote Republican,” she said.
A persistent argument against Romney’s candidature has been the lack of specifics, be it his economic plans or his foreign policy proposals. His trip abroad did nothing to silence his critics. In fact, his tri-nation trip gave more fodder to the Obama campaign and to those who do not see him as presidential material to pounce more ferociously on him, accusing that his foreign policy vision is more like a bullet-point presentation, with details left to be discussed later. Romney seems to believe that by merely opposing President Obama and his policies, he can win the election by rising on the crest of a supposedly anti-incumbency wave which may not turn out to be the case. Ross Douthat of the New York Times on August 4 wrote, “…But a Republican candidate who won’t define himself is a candidate who’s easily defined as just another George W. Bush.” Romney continues to play the tougher guy who charges President Obama of being apologetic of America’s power. He played this foreign policy rhetoric to the hilt during his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Annual Convention in Reno, Nevada: “…when it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity…. The President’s policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in seventy years … exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify … compromised our national-security secrets … and in dealings with other nations, given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due,” he said. “I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power,” he asserted.
He continues to ratchet up concerns regarding China’s trade practices and accused the Obama Administration of not doing enough against China. And he has nothing different to say on Afghanistan. After beating around the bush for quite a while regarding the timeline of US withdrawal from the Afghan War, he is finally toeing the Obama line, saying that he would transfer security to Afghan troops by the end of 2014. And what does he say to sound different? He prefers a gradual transition, with advice from military commanders, as if President Obama has been doing any different. Romney has criticized President Obama of being indecisive on Syria. But, US officials reportedly confirmed that President Barack Obama had signed a covert directive authorising U.S. support for Syrian rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The Obama administration has ruled out arming the rebels for now except providing non-lethal assistance. The Obama administration is providing intelligence assistance, cooperating with countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are arming the rebels and also increasing financial assistance. How will Romney handle it differently? During his campaign for the Republican nomination four years back in 2008, Romney wrote “the Cold War is over, and the world that too many of our current capabilities and alliances were created to address no longer exists. We cannot remain mired in the past.” But now he himself is accused of looking at world politics through an outdated Cold War lens, criticizing President Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia, once even declaring Russia as America’s no. 1 geopolitical foe — a comment that came under vigorous slamming, compelling him to slightly moderate his views. The Romney campaign has charged that the Obama administration had admonished a US ally like Poland by deciding to rescind the European missile defence system in September 2009, as a part of the “reset” of US relations with Russia. But a month later, Vice President Joe Biden who visited Poland announced that the US would proceed with a smaller project in a new format, called the Phased Adaptive Approach, which was welcomed by Prime Minister Donald Tusk and then President Lech Kaczynski.
Whenever Candidate Romney has tried to corner President Obama on foreign policy issues, he has come a cropper and counter-intuitively ended up underlining that Obama has had a fairly good first term record as the Commander-in-Chief and as the chief manager of US foreign policy. In a deeply divided American electorate, and equally polarising media, Romney’s foreign policy views and his readiness for the Presidential role have been dissected vigorously. Romney supporters, despite the gaffes-filled trip, have hailed the candidate as providing a more muscular American foreign policy, an alternative that respects American allies and is more aggressive to American enemies, as opposed to President Obama who they charged of running an apologetic American foreign policy that is not adequately critical of American enemies and is disrespectful of American allies. Obama supporters, on the other hand, have charged that Romney’s foreign tour, filled with unforced errors, more than ever validated their argument that he is just not ready to be the leader of a world power like the United States.
Obama has always enjoyed an edge when it comes to foreign policy handling and will, in all likeliness, do so for the rest of the election season. Romney has struggled to counter the fact that Obama managed to eliminate Osama bin Laden. He has tried to focus instead on how details became public, accusing the administration of politically motivated leaks. Bruce W. Jentleson Professor, Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy wrote in the HuffPost Politics, “…the accusations of leaks and political trumpeting just don’t trump the fact that Obama got Osama.” Most of the time, during the campaign, the challenger often give maximum attention to attacking the incumbent’s policies. The effort is really towards attracting those undecided voters who are uncertain and don’t like the President and, even if they don’t like Romney, might end up voting for him just because they don’t like President Obama.
Candidates, while campaigning, usually speak of foreign policy in ways that they think are politically advantageous and will garner them crucial votes. But, it is never certain that they will actually implement those policies once they are in office. But then, for a candidate like Romney who has no past foreign policy experience to show for, one can only follow his words and the kind of advisers he has to make some sense of his worldview. And Romney’s group of advisers has already started raising eyebrows because a majority of them are reportedly neoconservatives who were behind the ill-advised, ill-fated Iraq war, one of America’s most unpopular wars. Romney’s ties with the right flank of the Republican Party have often come under question and hence to correct this seeming weak spot, he has reportedly surrounded himself with neocons like John Bolton and Dan Senor. “I don’t know who all of his advisers are, but I’ve seen some of the names and some of them are quite far to the right. And sometimes they might be in a position to make judgments or recommendations to the candidate that should get a second thought,” Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” But then, Romney’s neoconservative views may just be ad-hoc with a view towards increasing influence within the Republican Party. One can never be sure until candidate Romney occupies the Oval Office and gets a chance to turn his foreign policy views into policies. At this juncture, Romney’s worldview seems to be defined, more than anything else, by the desire to sound different from President Obama. Foreign policy is still very much President Obama’s turf, and Romney’s foreign trip did nothing to change that.
(Monish Tourangbam is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)