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Tactless Abroad

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This week, Mitt Romney has offered another stunning and stupefying contrast between himself and the president.

Back in January 2009, the newly-elected President Obama told Muslims that America could be a friend, "If you are willing to unclench your fist."

On Monday, Mitt Romney gave them the middle finger.

That is the contrast between these two men, as evidenced in the Middle East this week.

One might have thought that a global conflict that has been as intractable as that involving the Arabs and Israelis would have inspired some careful reflection by the Romney team.

But that would be to impute far too much understanding to Mr. Romney.

In a speech delivered to Jewish and American supporters, he began by referring to Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. To make such a simplistic assertion is to ignore the simple fact that Palestinians continue to make a claim upon the eastern sector of that city. Regardless of the respective claims of either side, it is the height of tactlessness and ineptitude to make such a statement in such a disputed place.

And the effects of Mr. Romney's blasé approach could be heard as far away as China.

The Chinese government, through its official Xinhua News Agency, referred to the presumptive nominee's words as "radical" and then offered further condemnation.

"Romney's remarks totally neglect historical facts and are actually irresponsible if he just meant to appeal to voters at home," said the Chinese.

Ignorant and irresponsible, said the Chinese.

But Mr. Romney was just getting started.

He then proceeded to insult the Palestinians by drawing a contrast between their economic output and that of the Israelis. It was a cheap shot, but it worked.

"As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000." said Mr. Romney, "and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality."

Unfortunately, not only are Mr. Romney's facts woefully inaccurate (the C.I.A., back in 2008, said the ratio was more like $29,800 to $2,900), he displays no understanding whatsoever of the challenges faced by a people that lives under their political opponents' rule.

Saeb Erekat, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, added an even more disturbing analysis to that offered by the Chinese.

In responding directly to Mr Romney's comments, Mr Erekat said:

"It is a racist statement and this man doesn't realize 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."

Ignorant, irresponsible and racist. That's the view of the Chinese and Palestinians and he hasn't even been formally nominated yet.

Many of us thought that Mr Romney couldn't possibly get any worse than his first stop in London, where he insulted the British government's management of the Olympic Games.

But the final kick in the teeth was about to be delivered by a man who is a gold medal holder in the sport of cultural condescension.

"Culture makes all the difference," said Mr Romney. And then, just in case we'd missed his point, he drove it home with aplomb.

"And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things."

In one fell swoop, Mr. Romney had denigrated one of the world's most densely followed religions and the historical and cultural contributions of the great Arab lands.

And here's the rub: this is the kind of puerile politics that can actually have very serious consequences.

Given that Mr Romney has delighted in telling us some of the books that have inspired his views, he might consider reading Professor Louise Richardson's book entitled, What Terrorists Want.

In one of the most rigorous intellectual assessments of terrorism, Professor Richardson explains how terrorists are often mature, well-educated men driven by a desire for revenge and renown. And they listen carefully to the words of foreign leaders.

If Mr. Romney reads it, he may belatedly realize that his trip abroad has been ill-considered. And he might take a leaf out of the president's book and extend the hand of friendship and not an obscene hand gesture.

This post originally appeared at MSNBC's Lean Forward blog.

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