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Romney trip boosts diplomacy chops, raises questions

Updated: 2012-08-01 13:19
( Xinhua)

WASHINGTON - Presumed Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Tuesday ended his trip to Europe and Israel, during which he tried to contrast himself with President Barack Obama on foreign policy while looking presidential.

However, his tough stance on Iran, among other issues, raised more questions than answers about a Romney presidency.

"Romney's primary goal in this trip is to look presidential," said James Lindsay, a leading expert on US foreign policy with the Council on Foreign Relations. "He is now only a couple of months out from the election day. He wants Americans to think of him as being president."

And looking presidential is exactly what Romney tried to do during the trip. The week-long trip took him to Britain, Israel and Poland. The former Massachusetts governor met with current and former British officials and watched the London Olympic Games opening ceremony; he rubbed shoulders with Israeli leaders and made a speech at dusk overlooking Jerusalem's Old City; and got all but an endorsement from Lech Walesa, the former Polish president.

Perhaps the most watched segment of the trip was Romney's 48-hour swing in Israel. In his Jerusalem speech, Romney said preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear capability should be the United States' "highest national security priority."

US media noted that, while the Obama administration typically talks about stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Romney went a step further by saying Tehran must be prevented from even having the capability to develop one.

"We cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel voice their criticisms," he said, taking a thinly veiled shot at Obama. "And we certainly should not join in that criticism. Diplomatic distance in public between our nations emboldens Israel's adversaries."

The tough stance was not without calculation, Lindsay said. Besides looking presidential, Romney's "secondary political goal is to impress key constituencies, one obviously is Americans deeply worried about US relations with Israel." Romney signalled in the trip he was "going to be a deep, impassioned friend of Israel, and suggested president Obama hasn't been," the expert said.

The Jewish community in the United States usually votes Democrat, but commentators have noted recent demographic changes mean Jewish voters, many of whom care deeply about Israel, could be swayed into supporting a Republican. Even if Romney can not swing the majority of Jewish votes, he can still get a boost in key states such as Florida, where some 640,000 Jews reside. Some deep pocketed Jewish donors also proved to be instrumental in supporting the GOP's agenda. One example is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who flew to Israel to attend a Romney fundraiser Monday morning that netted 1 million US dollars.

Problems for Romney

However, Romney's efforts have potential pitfalls, as Lindsay noted, "if he makes any missteps along the way, they could be amplified." That is exactly what took place in London, the supposedly "easy" part of the trip, where Romney doubted Brits' readiness to host the Olympics, which was widely criticized by British officials and press.

Romney's comment Monday morning at the Israel fundraiser also infuriated Palestinians. He told Jewish donors their culture was part of what had allowed them to be more economically successful than the Palestinians. Palestinian leaders have suggested his comments were racist and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East.

"It is a racist statement and this man doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Romney's visit to Poland was not all that smooth either. Solidarity, the trade union movement which led Polish transition to its current system, distanced itself from Romney, saying he supported attacks on unions in his own country.

"Solidarity was not involved in organizing Romney's meeting with Walesa and did not invite him to visit Poland," the movement said in a statement. Aides to Romney also had a tense time with reporters during the Poland trip, with one aide reportedly telling reporters to "shove it" after some tough questions were raised about the comment Romney made during the Israel fundraiser.

The Democrats have pounced on Romney's missteps. Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" the gaffes in London revealed him as a candidate who is neither ready for the US nor the world stage.

"Look, Mitt Romney wondered aloud whether London was ready for the Olympics, and I think it's clear that voters in this country wonder aloud whether Mitt Romney is ready for the world, and I think the world is not yet ready for Mitt Romney," Gibbs said.

Democrats also panned what they called pandering to Jewish voters. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi defended Obama's record on Israel, accusing Romney of using the issue to distract Jewish voters from the party's economic policies.

"Many of the Republicans are using Israel as an excuse, what they really want are tax cuts for the wealthy. So Israel, that can be one reason they put forth," Pelosi said on Bloomberg's Political Capital. "The fact is that President Obama has been the strongest person in terms of sanctions on Iran, which is important to Israel. He's been the strongest person on whether it's Iron Dome, David's Sling, any of these weapons systems and initiatives that relate to Israel."

The Obama administration has been trying to preempt Romney's Israel visit. The president signed a piece of legislation last Friday, giving Israel an additional 70 million dollars to purchase the Iron Dome rocket defense system. He sent Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the Middle East and North Africa over the weekend. Panetta will meet with Israeli officials, and Iran will be a topic among their discussions.

Recent reports have indicated the Obama administration has been beefing up its military presence in the Gulf to deter Iran, and in part to reassure Israelis.