Romney's foreign misadventures

Published July 30, 2012

Mitt Romney bounced from careless to reckless over the weekend during an overseas trip meant to showcase his foreign policy credentials. In London, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee slighted his hosts by wondering whether Britain was prepared to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Romney followed that with a trip to Israel, where he was forced to backtrack on a senior foreign policy aide's suggestion his administration would support a unilateral military strike against Iran by Israel. And on Monday, he angered the Arab world by musing that the Jewish culture is partly responsible for the income gap between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead of burnishing his credentials, Romney raised more questions about his preparedness to be president.

Overseas trips are dress rehearsals for presidential candidates, giving them a chance to reflect American leadership on the global stage. But there is more to it than putting a flag pin on a lapel and stepping toward the mike. Romney's thoughtless remarks in London showed he hadn't done his homework on an event a decade in the making. And they indicated a lack of appreciation for British pride on the eve of the Olympics.

But that gaffe was harmless compared to Romney's inflammatory words in Israel. On Sunday, the campaign was forced to walk back from comments by a senior aide that Romney would support a unilateral Israeli strike to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. While the long-standing U.S. policy is to leave all options on the table, the Obama administration has talked about preventing Iran from obtaining weapons, not the mere capability to produce them. And the Obama White House has focused on negotiations with Iran and resisted Israeli attempts for Washington to draw a harder line.

Romney also trampled on age-old wounds by declaring at a breakfast Monday that culture "makes all the difference" for the disparities in income between Israelis and Palestinians. While the campaign sought to tamp down the furor by claiming that his remarks were taken out of context, it is bewildering that Romney would wade into such a storm without acknowledging the punishing effect that Israel's trade and travel restrictions have on the Palestinian areas. And his declaration that Jerusalem is "the capital of Israel" only sours the climate for finding an accommodation over a city that both Jews and Arabs claim as theirs.

Romney made an impression, but not a good one and certainly not one that advances American interests abroad. His attempt to peel Jewish votes away from Obama and to flex U.S. military might could take another bad turn today, in a speech in Poland that may reflect more Cold War thinking than 21st century cooperation. This would be an odd time to pick a fight with Russia when the West needs Moscow's help in moving Iran to the bargaining table and in halting the slaughter in Syria.

The first rule for foreign trips by U.S. candidates for president is to do no harm. Romney failed that test in London and Jerusalem, and there will be more questions about his foreign policy skills when he returns home than when he left.