Thursday, July 26, 2012

Not ready for British Summer Time:
Mitt Romney’s foreign misadventure

I AM an unapologetic believer in the greatness of America,” Mitt Romney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday. “I am not ashamed of American power.”

Never mind how he feels about the greatness and power of the American economy — the one he’s been reluctant to invest in: the former Massachusetts governor tried to make his case with the greatest generation and its successors with that two-sentence backhanded slap at President Obama.

Like other tactics Romney’s brought to bear against Team Obama in the presidential campaign, his insinuation falls short of the mark. Romney managed to ignore, or forget, the administration’s elimination of the figurehead anathema of our time, Osama bin Laden, in May of last year.

Or the president’s deft, surgical use of military force in April 2009, when Richard Phillips, the captain of the 17,000-ton container ship Maersk Alabama, was rescued after being kidnapped by four Somali pirates. Or the president’s use of drone strikes in ways and numbers that run counter to anything that could be seen as being ashamed of American power.

“He is going to the basket with the same move the Republicans have used for 10 years or more,” said Joe Conason of, on MSNBC, alluding to Romney's use of the enduring Democrats = Weak on Defense meme the GOP has long cultivated.

Romney took his shots anyway on Tuesday, in what has to be seen as a runup to his big summer adventure, his first campaign trip abroad. With his trip to London, Poland and Israel, Romney took his road show across the pond, not so much to bolster his foreign-policy credentials as to establish them.

He didn’t get off on the good foot.

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The trip, Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chen told CNN, would be about "locking arms with our allies." But no sooner had he hit the ground in London, site of the XXX Summer Olympic Games, than he made his first misstep, one that ironically enough was a result of his previous work as presumed miracle worker of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

Interviewed Wednesday by Brian Williams for the NBC “Nightly News,” Romney appeared to harbor doubts about the UK’s readiness to host the Games.

“You know, it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging. Because in the Games, there are three parts that makes Games successful.

“Number one, of course, are the athletes. That’s what overwhelmingly the Games are about. Number two are the volunteers. And they’ll have great volunteers here.

“But number three are the people of the country. Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment? And that’s something which we only find out once the Games actually begin.

British Prime Minister David Cameron punched back, saying there is no doubt “Britain can deliver.”

“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” he said. “And of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” a cheeky Cameron added, in what was clearly an oblique swipe at Salt Lake City’s location.

That little shot sparked a response from a spokesperson for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who told BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins in a statement that “[David Cameron] can stop by any time. We'd love to have him and are happy to send a map so he doesn't run into any trouble locating the middle of nowhere.”

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IT DIDN’T stop there. Romney managed to piss off the notoriously unforgiving British media. All in all, “not a great day at the office,” wrote The Sun.

Financial Times: “Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate for the US presidency, got off to a shaky start in his effort to show a statesmanlike profile when he seemed to get into a public spat with the UK prime minister over London’s readiness to host the Olympics.”

BBC: “Mr. Romney is credited with rescuing the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, now he’s appeared to question London’s readiness to host a successful Olympics,” host George Alagiah said. “If he's here to make friends, he's got a funny way of showing it.”

Romney walked back his “Nightly News” comments, and presumably made nice with Cameron when the two met at 10 Downing Street. “It is impossible for absolutely no mistakes to occur,” Romney said. “Of course there will be errors from time to time, but those are all overshadowed by the extraordinary demonstrations of courage, character and determination by the athletes.” A tempest in a teapot, perhaps.

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Then if you can imagine, it got even worse. No sooner had he literally closed the door at No. 10 after meeting Cameron than Romney crowed that he’d had a meeting with Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, the British Intelligence Service.

From The Telegraph: “Asked about Syria by an American reporter whether he and Cameron spoke about Syria […] he replies: “I appreciated the insights and perspectives of the leaders of the government here and the opposition here, as well as the head of MI6.”

From a live blog at The Guardian (UK):

“For our American readership, this isn't like bragging you just met David Petraeus. The British take on the national secret intelligence service comes with an extra-heavy dollop of the whole secret thing. The very existence of the MI6 was not officially acknowledged until 1994.

“Good luck, Romney handlers: this is only stop No. 1 on a three-stop international tour. What will he say in Jerusalem? That when you really look at it there are some pretty daunting barriers to the peace process, like take all those Arab Israelis, how's that going to work out for a Jewish state?”

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AND OH YEAH — for good measure, Romney even found a way to rile the American media traveling with him. Jon Swaine, Telegraph’s Washington correspondent, reports: “Not content with upsetting his British hosts, Mr Romney has now also managed to enrage the travelling American press corps, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to follow him around the globe. After his meeting with [Labour Party leader] Ed Miliband, the Republican presidential challenger apparently took questions only from British reporters.

“The gaffe-prone Mr Romney is so rarely made available to these media ‘embeds’ on the trail that his campaign has been nicknamed the Mittness Protection Programme. So his decision to ignore them during one such ‘avail’ went down predictably badly.”

Not a bad day's work. In a trice, the presumptive Republican nominee for the American presidency has shown just how extraordinarily foreign he is to the nuances of statecraft. In little more than 24 hours, he’s managed to tarnish the U.S./UK special relationship and trash his own tenuous relationship with the American media. He's stinking up the joint even when the joint’s half a world away.

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And he’s just getting started. Romney will attend the opening of the Games on Friday, there to avail himself of whatever luster-by-association he can gain as a result of his work for the Salt Lake City Games a decade ago. If that seems like straining for a connection, well ... it is. A lot of people attending the London Games may not even care (especially now). Many others at the Games may care the wrong way.

After this, the stinkeye magnet journeys to Israel for a meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and presumably a discussion of Israeli national security and the spectre of a nuclear-tipped Iranian Republic. This leg of the trip will be especially worth watching, to see if Romney sticks by the old pledge not to criticize a sitting president while abroad — to see if the phrase “water’s edge” means anything to him.

And then on to Poland, probably to huddle with its leadership and double down on his March campaign statement calling Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe” — an assessment greatly disputed by scholars and global analysts.

We’ll see if he can hit two out of the next three. Right now, Mitt Romney is battling a thousand. In negative numbers.

Image credits: Romney top: ABC News screengrab. Romney middle: NBC News. Tweets are by their respective creators. 

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