Risks, rewards as Romney steps onto world stage

Travelling to England, Israel and Poland, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will try to turn the page on a rough phase of his campaign, gain credibility on foreign policy and criticise Obama—all without uttering a negative word.


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has spent recent weeks fending off scathing criticism of his business background and personal finances.

What better time, then, to get out of town?

Starting Wednesday, Romney will try to turn the page on this bruising phase of his campaign by heading to England, Israel and Poland in what has become a rite of passage for US presidential contenders: the international summer tour.

President Obama’s 2008 trip abroad saw the then-White House hopeful speaking to throngs of cheering Germans in front of Berlin’s Victory Column, securing crucial support from Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki, and charming former French President Nicolas Sarkozy into a near-endorsement (“Obama is my buddy,” Sarkozy reportedly gushed to reporters).

Romney will probably not get the same rock-star reception as Obama, whose counterterrorism successes and winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have since earned him a reputation as an accomplished navigator of foreign policy. But, as John Fortier, a political scientist at think tank Bipartisan Policy Center, said: “By going abroad, Romney will help burnish his own foreign policy credentials.”

Scheduled meetings with prominent foreign leaders like Prime Ministers David Cameron of Britain and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel are indeed designed to boost Romney’s image as a worldly, well-connected potential head of state, ready for his close-up on the international stage.

And while US diplomatic protocol frowns upon politicians speaking ill of their president while abroad, Romney will try to draw unspoken contrasts with Obama, whom he has accused of neglecting longstanding allies and “appeasing” adversaries. A statement the Romney campaign gave to The New York Times last weekend suggested that the Republican candidate’s trip has, in effect, been carefully orchestrated to reflect a more hawkish foreign policy. “This trip demonstrates Governor Romney’s belief in the worth and necessity of standing with our allies,” Romney policy advisor Lanhee Chen told the newspaper. “Each of these nations shares our love of liberty as well as the fortitude to defend it.”

In Israel, ‘implicit criticism’ of Obama

Romney arrives on Wednesday in London, where he will attend the opening of the Summer Olympics – possibly crossing paths with First Lady Michelle Obama – and hobnob with expat donors at fundraising events. In addition to Cameron, Romney is slated to meet Ed Miliband, the head of the opposition Labour party, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But it is the second stop on Romney’s trip, Israel, which is likely to garner the biggest headlines and most scrutiny. Obama’s failure to advance the Middle East peace process – despite trying to get Netanyahu to freeze Jewish settlements in the West Bank - is considered a stain on his foreign policy record, and Romney has previously slammed the president for “throwing Israel under the bus”. The Republican’s visit to Israel on Friday will therefore offer him a chance to position himself as an alternative. “There will be implicit criticism [of Obama] in Romney’s visit to Israel, just by offering Israelis another potential president to like when they’ve sometimes felt a bit spurned by the current one,” suggested Michael O’Hanlon, a US foreign policy specialist at think tank The Brookings Institution.

Though Romney is expected to speak with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, his meeting with Netanyahu will be the centerpiece of the trip. The two men worked together in 1976 at a global management consulting firm in Boston, and Romney, with his pledges of unwavering support for Israel and tougher stance on Mideast issues, is seen as an easier fit for the Israeli prime minister than Obama.

Romney’s stop in Israel is also intended to appeal to voters back home. Though a large majority of Jewish Americans vote Democratic (78 percent in the 2008 election), Republicans are hoping to chip away at support for Obama among elderly Jews in the crucial swing state of Florida. The visit could also help motivate Christian conservatives who have not yet fully warmed to the Mormon Romney. “Evangelicals are generally pro-Israel and will support Romney's emphasis on close relations with Israel,” Fortier pointed out.

Romney’s visit to Israel may not be without challenges, however. The candidate has insisted that his Israel strategy would be “the opposite” of Obama’s, and in the coming days he may be pressed to specify just how – particularly regarding violence in neighboring Syria or the possibility of pre-emptive Israeli strikes against Iran.

Creating a contrast in Poland

The third leg of Romney’s trip, Poland, could afford the candidate an easier opportunity to get the upper hand on a foreign policy issue. The Republican contender will hold talks with Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and co-founder of anti-Communist trade union Solidarity, who turned down a meeting with Obama in 2011. Romney is expected to praise Poland’s growing economy as evidence of the effectiveness of Republican-endorsed free market policies, and his tough talk on Russia could also be a crowd-pleaser in the country.

Still, O’Hanlon warned, “if [Romney] reverts to the anti-Russia rhetoric he used a few months ago…that may create a vulnerability”. The candidate’s March comment on CNN calling Russia America’s “number-one geopolitical foe” drew scorn from several foreign policy experts.

Fortier also noted that “the greatest risk [on Romney’s trip abroad] is that there will be a gaffe, a moment where Romney shows inexperience or lack of knowledge of foreign affairs, or if he inserts himself directly into a controversy”.

Pundits predict that Romney will play it safe on his trip abroad. But if he plays it too safe, Obama’s re-election team is likely to pounce. Though both campaigns declared a truce in the wake of the fatal shooting at a Colorado movie theatre last Friday, the president’s camp kicked off this week on a combative note. “Mitt Romney owes it to the American people to say where he stands on these important [international] issues,” Obama’s former press secretary Robert Gibbs said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “He’s trying out to be leader of the free world.”

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