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Romney Was a Clumsy Neophyte on Foreign Policy Tour

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The 2012 presidential election is the first in nearly half a century in which the Democratic nominee consistently outpolls the Republican on issues of foreign policy. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll shows presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney trailing President Barack Obama by 12 points on that metric.

In light of such an historical discrepancy, Romney needed his eight-day, three-nation foreign tour to shape, polish, and package his inchoate foreign policy views and establish himself as a competent statesman respected abroad. Unfortunately, the trip had precisely the opposite effect. The message mismanagement and repeated blunders on the world stage overshadowed any substantive foreign policy Romney may have hoped to communicate, and they fuel a narrative that he is out of his league and out of touch.

On what should have been the easiest leg of his trip - the United Kingdom - he managed in short course to offend the people of the host nation and irk leaders of our strongest ally by haughtily criticizing their preparedness for the Olympic games. This was no small display of hubris given his well-deserved reputation for salvaging the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City.

The condescension drew a restrained but cool rebuke from conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who quipped "of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic games in the middle of nowhere," punctuated by a slight chuckle. Cameron later insisted his response didn't refer to Salt Lake City, but the comparison was an easy deduction with a strong implication: we don't need major-league criticism from tee ball coaches... we've got this.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, another conservative, joined the response by feigning to barely know who Romney even is. "I hear there's this guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we're ready.... Are we ready? Yes we are!" (emphasis mine). Johnson's retort certainly isn't the first time an American presidential candidate has been mocked by an ally abroad, but it's perhaps the first time it's happened by a fellow conservative in front of a raucous crowd of 60,000 cheering onlookers.

Romney's London missteps amounted to little more than innocuous trivialities, but greater and far more consequential insensitivity surfaced in Israel that exposed a vacuous understanding of foreign policy nuance. While a senior aide suggested a future-President Romney would support Israel if it waged unilateral military attacks on Iran to prevent that country from building nuclear weapons, the candidate himself stoked tension in the region by casually declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, something no presidential administration has done because of the sensitivity of the issue in negotiations with Palestinians.

And in a speech at a $1 million fundraiser with high-level Jewish donors in Jerusalem, Romney suggested Israel's culture and the "hand of providence" explained its economic vitality over Palestine, and he vastly understated the facts of the disparity between the two economies in the process.

The comment infuriated Palestinian officials, including Saeb Erekat, a senior advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who immediately condemned the comments as racist and out of touch, telling the Associated Press, "It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people." He later told the Boston Globe, "This man needs a lot of education." Hanan Ashwari, PLO executive committee member, also told the Globe, "It shows a lack of knowledge of reality."

And so it does. Ashwari details the many factors depressing the Palestinian economy that are entirely unrelated to Romney's grand notions of cultural differences. And Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center in Washington, D.C., goes a step further at the Daily Beast by illustrating economic realities on the ground while framing Romney's oversimplification of them as racist.

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and many other agencies have issued countless reports about the Palestinian economy and how the infrastructure of Israeli apartheid is the primary limitation of its growth. How can an economy prosper with severe restrictions on movement, restricted import and export, 500+ checkpoints, no access to 60 percent of the land for private investment, severe limitations on access to water and agricultural space, etc.? By ignoring well-established reasons for Palestinian economic limitations, i.e. Israeli restrictions, and explaining things only through differences in 'culture,' Romney is blaming the victims of Israeli occupation for their plight and yes, this is racism.

There's nothing novel about a Republican presidential candidate ingratiating himself to pro-Israel supporters by trying to show solidarity with Israel. But there is something unprecedented and unpalatable about doing so in a way that distorts factual realities and aggravates tension in what arguably is the most sensitive region in the world.

Romney's "analysis" may have been well-intentioned, but its inaccuracy and indelicacy calls into question his grasp of nuance, his understanding of the complexities of the issues affecting the region, and his capacity for diplomacy. Ultimately, the blunder paints him as a clumsy neophyte out of touch on issues of grave international importance.

Romney later attempted to clarify the remark, insisting he wasn't referring to Palestinian culture at all, only to return home later that day and double-down on it. The equivocation underscores yet another narrative against which Romney already has to defend himself: that he is a vacillating political opportunist without a moral compass. Incidentally, this particular narrative originated with the fratricidal attacks of fellow Republicans in the primaries and will certainly be a part of the general election in the fall.

So given the series of setbacks and the deluge of criticism, what electoral benefits did the trip provide? Absolutely none. Republican voters undoubtedly support his trip to Israel. And the less savory fringes of the right-wing base may privately nod and grin at the unintended islamophobia in his remarks (the GOP has played at anti-Muslim dog-whistling for over a decade). But these voters already overwhelmingly support Romney.

On the other hand, American Jewish voters historically vote Democratic by wide margins and already back Obama by more than two to one. As for the movable middle - the very narrow margin of true independents who many think decide elections - it's hard to see how a week-long series of international embarrassments helps frame Romney as a competent leader in objective, undecided minds.

To be fair, the full electoral implications of Romney's gaffe-laden trip are likely to be minimal. Most Americans aren't tuned into the intricacies of an embarrassing foreign tour for the governor; and the 2012 election certainly will hinge not on foreign policy but on the sluggish US economy. Romney can take solace in the news that voters consistently think he is better able than Obama to manage it.

But nascent presidential nominees craft these trips not just as photo-ops but as opportunities to show themselves as serious statesman who can effectively manage our interests abroad with dexterity and distinction. The most successful of these trips (see Barack Obama 2008) also define a candidate's command of foreign policy via bold initiatives. Romney's trip, however, did none of that. It fed accounts at home of him being out of touch and bereft of practicable solutions.