Why Romney’s failure abroad matters

Updated
Mitt Romney, sporting a double USA-Israel flag pin, delivers a speech yesterday in Jerusalem.
Mitt Romney, sporting a double USA-Israel flag pin, delivers a speech yesterday in Jerusalem.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Given that presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has no foreign policy experience whatsoever, questions about what he’d do abroad if elected require a precise, detailed answer. For one, he’s running against an incumbent whose successes abroad been notable, and have left conservative politicos and media to humiliate themselves with nitpicking over just how and when President Obama killed Osama bin Laden, and about apologies which never happened. Romney himself has joined in on this, offering little more than the dude in Trading Places who merely said “Yeah!” after his buddy talked back to Billy Ray Valentine. Suffice to say, more specifics were needed.

Back in May, the New York Times’ David Sanger asked whether or not there is a “Romney doctrine”: a set of beliefs, platforms, and statements that might add up to a cogent worldview. After recapping some vagaries and a few random and alarming statements from the candidate, Sanger, the Times’ chief Washington correspondent, concluded with this:

…so far this year Mr. Romney has spent little time on foreign policy, understandable given the length of the primary battles. The Romney strategy for now may simply be to portray Mr. Obama as a weak apologizer and figure out the details later.

That has changed in the last week when the candidate went abroad. The first stop was England, where things didn’t start well when an unnamed adviser reportedly blew the now-infamous “Anglo-Saxon” dog-whistle. Romney followed up with an assortment of mistakes unbecoming for an AP history student, let alone a presidential candidate. It was quite perplexing to see him breach protocol by revealing his meeting with the head of MI6, the British secret intelligence agency that didn’t officially exist 20 years ago. Then he wanted to make sure that you knew he didn’t care – nope, not at all – about his wife’s horse competing in Olympic dressage. (That’s just a weird thing for anyone to disown, but hey.)

Romney insulting Londoners’ preparation for the Olympic Games was so glaring an error that it got a name – the “Underminer” – from New York’s Jonathan Chait:

The undermining gaffe occurs when Romney is trying to ingratiate himself with somebody, yet can’t help but point out that their standards of excellence don’t rise to his own. Sucking up to people is just a completely unnatural act for him.

Romney insulting one of America’s closest allies was more embarrassing for Romney than anything; London Mayor Boris Johnson clowning him in front of tens of thousands in Hyde Park was hilarious, not alarming. I’m not even all that disconcerted by the conventional wisdom that for all the hubbub about these remarks, Romney won’t lose a single vote.

That said, the things that came out of his mouth in Israel – the second of his three stops abroad – should matter.

It’s clear that he was there as part of the recently renewed GOP effort to win over the Jewish vote back stateside. And as such, a blatant falsehood about the President’s relationship with Israel wasn’t a surprise. But Romney gave credence to what Melissa said on Friday night, when she hosted “The Rachel Maddow Show”: Romney agrees with former President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, and that’s where he wants to take the country.

Romney uttered some truly curious stuff when he praised Israel’s health care mandate while still dissing “Obamacare,” talked tough about Iran, and gave an interview in which he lamented the progress brought about by the Arab Spring. He saved the most problematic for last, it seems:

Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the Palestinians, outraging Palestinian leaders who suggested his comments were racist and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East… 

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and 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 such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who ate breakfast at the luxurious King David Hotel.

Those figures he quoted are inaccurate; the economic disparity is even more stark. Per the AP, Israel had a per capita gross domestic product of about $31,000 in 2011, while the West Bank and Gaza had a per capita GDP of just over $1,500. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Romney endorser John McCain have already spoken out in disagreement, and it is easy to see why the Palestinians were upset. Whether or not you care that Palestinians are upset, a man who might be the leader of the free world said that their being poor and having a lesser culture are reasons he favors Israel over them.

Oh, yeah – Romney added that “culture” bit in those same remarks, saying that “if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: culture makes all the difference.” (Marcy Wheeler speculates that Romney’s comments could have been inspired by the latest D.C. fad book for both parties, When Nations Fall.)

This is a scary attitude for a potential President to have. Slate’s Fred Kaplan argues that this is the real Romney. He’s doubled down on the remarks, but we need to know for sure because this all goes to the heart of who Romney is as a candidate. He may not think a foreign trip is the right time to detail his foreign policy (yes, Romney said that), but what if his approach to other countries informs his approach to America?

Specifically, if he thinks that way about Israelis and Palestinians, does he judge American minorities (especially if they won’t vote for him) in the same fashion? Does he think wealthy, cultured folks are inherently superior?

I’d like to hear Romney answer that question in Poland, where he landed today. Just saying “Yeah!” won’t be sufficient.

Update: No sooner did I publish this post than did an item about Romney calling Russia our number-one geopolitical foe pop up in my Twitter feed. The Cold War may be cold, but isn’t dead to Romney, evidently. Video below, via BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski.

Update, 8:27am, Tuesday: The hits just keep on coming. ThinkProgress and Talking Points Memo both flagged this today:

A Romney spokesperson cursed at the traveling press corps in Warsaw, Poland on Tuesday when the press tried to ask questions of the presumptive Republican nominee, reports CNN. Romney was departing from a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw when the incident took place.

What was the curse? According to the transcript, Romney traveling press secretary Rick Gorka told a New York Times reporter shouting questions to Romney, “Kiss my ass. This is a Holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.” (He later apologized.)

One reason why the reporter was so urgent to have her questions answered was the fact that in seven days, through three countries, Romney answered exactly three questions from the traveling press pool. This is what happens when a campaign treats its press pool like a PR team, then is shocked when it discovers who they actually are. Whether or not the candidate is ready for prime time is in question, but the campaign’s press team sure isn’t.

Why Romney's failure abroad matters

Updated