Mitt Romney arrives in Poland today on the third and final leg of a foreign tour that has already taken him to London and Israel. While he may not have the obvious charm of Obama, predictions of his campaign being derailed by this foreign tour misunderstand Romney’s strategy.
Foreign pundits are perennially guilty of ascribing too much importance to the foreign trips of prospective presidential candidates from the United States. When Obama visited Europe, the Middle East, and Afghanistan in the run up to the 2008 election – to mostly fawning press coverage – he only enjoyed a short-lived boost in the polls over his Republican candidate. His lead grew to nine points and then dropped to just one within days.
And while the foreign press might be pillorying Romney’s efforts abroad, Obama’s reputation is hardly glowing. Polling results released by Pew Research last month revealed that support for Obama’s policies has fallen sharply across Europe and the Muslim world; by 15 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.
‘We’re not worried about overseas headlines. We’re worried about voters back here at home in America,’ the Republican Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, told ABC News. This is where Romney can take some comfort.
In Israel he took the opportunity to distance himself decisively from Obama’s policies in the Middle East. Romney called Jerusalem the capital of Israel, quoted Menachem Begin no less than three times, and spoke about the need to confront Iran.
It was his stance on this last issue that is most significant. ‘I respect the right of Israel to defend itself, and we stand with Israel,’ Romney said. This is markedly different from the approach adopted by Obama’s administration which is investing heavily in the hope that sanctions might finally prompt Tehran to abandon its nuclear programme and has told Netanyahu not to rock the boat.
This approach resonates with Romney’s support base at home, more than anything he might have said about the Olympics. Polling released last month by Benjamin Valentino, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, shows that 70 per cent of Republican voters would support military action to prevent a foreign government from producing weapons of mass destruction. A near identical level of support is found among Republicans to prevent a foreign government from giving WMDs to America’s adversaries, or in cases where military action would end a foreign government’s support for terrorist groups.
All three apply in the case of Iran. Aside from its nuclear programme, over the years Tehran has helped rogue regimes such as the Syrians develop chemical and biological weapons, while also supporting the terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah.
This is what sets apart Romney’s foreign policy from that of the current administration, and is what much of the dismissive commentary of his foreign tour has failed to appreciate so far. Romney’s Republican constituency wants to see action on these issues.
His aims are easy at this point: to identify clear blue water between Republican and Democrat foreign policy for the benefit of the American electorate. As the challenger to an incumbent, that means amplifying and simplifying his message.
The tone he struck was of someone who values America’s relationship with the UK and Israel more than the current president. But this doesn’t mean – as some sections of the press have suggested – that a Romney administration would abandon diplomacy and blunder headlong into a new series of conflicts.
Indeed, some members of Romney’s foreign policy team are seasoned advisers who have spent significant parts of their careers discreetly negotiating with America’s adversaries around the world. A team of this kind is precisely what will be needed if the United States is to meet the challenges of a Middle East in flux, Iranian belligerence, ongoing instability in Pakistan, and renewed uncertainty over the future of North Korea.
Cherry-picking a moment of inelegant prose or isolating some of Romney’s more forthright views on Iran overlooks the iridescence of his foreign policy approach. Anyone wanting to see just how different the rhetoric of a presidential candidate can be from the reality of their actual policies need only look to Obama. Lauded for his dulcet tones and silky rhetoric when talking about American power, he has outstripped the Bush administration in deploying deadly and extra-judicial force against terror suspects around the world. In the first year of his presidency he authorised more drone strikes than Bush had throughout his entire time in office.
This is the real backdrop to Romney’s foreign tour; distinguishing himself from Obama and appealing to his Republican base. The idea that some diplomatic clumsiness is indicative of the foreign policy we should expect from a future Romney administration is more than a little far-fetched.