Governor Mitt Romney had a chance to demonstrate on his trip to Great Britain, Israel, and Poland that he is ready to take on the duties of America’s top diplomat and commander in chief — among the presidency’s most vital responsibilities. Yet for reasons that are hard to understand, Romney undermined himself through surprising lapses in judgment and careless rhetoric, and he failed to articulate his core beliefs on international policy. Far from building confidence in his foreign-policy credentials, the trip actually fueled doubts about his readiness to lead in the most complex and dangerous international environment in a generation.
Inevitably, foreign-policy tryouts for presidential candidates have much more to do with politics than with serious policy. Romney had much to showcase. He is very smart, and is more experienced and capable than his critics allow. Still, the erratic nature of his remarks in each capital was mystifying, especially in light of how important the trip was to his electoral hopes.
London should have been Romney’s easiest stop, playing as it did to his Salt Lake Olympic credentials. But on his first day there, he chose to cast doubts on Britain’s readiness for this summer’s games. This earned swift criticism from Britain’s aggressive press and, more pointedly, from fellow conservatives such as Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Words really matter in international politics. It wasn’t wise for Romney to offer even the slightest public criticism of the United Kingdom, our very best friend in the world.
Romney’s meeting in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the trip’s centerpiece. He rightly emphasized America’s security commitment to Israel and strong opposition to Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions. But once again, Romney snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In praising Israel for its extraordinary economic success, he attributed the “dramatic, stark differences in economic vitality” between Israel and the Palestinian Territories to reasons of “culture.” Yet Romney made no mention of a principal reason for that disparity — Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank since June 1967.
It makes little sense to brand the Palestinians as economic losers when Israel has not permitted them to export freely, attract investment, or build a normal economy for the past generation. It would have been fair to criticize Egypt or Syria, both independent, but not the Palestinians who live under onerous restrictions. His remarks may have cheered Netanyahu supporters in the United States, but will damage Romney’s credibility — and not just with Palestinians — if he is elected president.
Romney also missed the opportunity to take advantage of what is arguably President Obama’s greatest foreign policy failure: America’s lack of progress in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Romney presented no ideas of his own on that issue. Instead, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, blithely repudiating six decades of American policy with no clear explanation why. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have chosen not to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem until Israelis and Palestinians make a final peace. Was Romney’s remark a signal he intends to change that policy and thus give up America’s role as mediator in the Middle East?
So far in the campaign, Romney has not yet found a way to counter Obama’s solid international record. Romney can’t run to Obama’s right on national security, as Republicans have done to Democrats for decades. To distinguish himself from Obama, he needs to offer a more compelling sense of how he intends to maintain American power in an era where others are rising to challenge us. Where are his comprehensive proposals on Middle East peace or relations with China? How would he end the Afghan war with peace and honor or find a way to work with Russia on Syria and Iran?
Instead of ideas, he is offering us slogans. While President Obama has a full foreign policy record by which we can judge him, Romney does not. That is why he must offer new ideas on where he would lead us in the international arena. Romney is an impressive man with a record of success in business and politics. But we should expect much more of him than what he showed on his trip.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.