The timing of the tragic events in the Colorado cinema turned out to be beneficial for the Mitt Romney campaign. Debates over his tenure at Bain Capital and tax returns moved back on the national priority list and any talk of choosing a running mate before the Olympics is gone now. But to the extent that there is room for something else beyond the shooting this week, Romney’s foreign forays, starting with a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nevada, this Tuesday, are important for a candidate with little experience on the international stage.
Romney needs to broaden his critique of Obama to something that includes national security and foreign policy. Apart from some debate one-liners, that hasn’t happened yet.
Romney needs this break, as the attacks on his past as a business executive seem to be working. After weeks of highlighting his record at Bain Capital and his overseas accounts, latest polls (Daily Kos/SEIU State of the Union) find that 40% of registered voters say Romney’s work at Bain Capital makes them LESS likely to vote for him. Only 17% said it makes them more likely to.
His three-country trip to Britain, Israel and Poland is designed to beef up his foreign policy credentials, appeal to the Jewish and Polish electorates at home and sharpen his attacks on President Obama in a field that has been considered a safe territory for the incumbent so far. The choice of these three nations was explained by the Romney campaign by the fact that “each of these nations shares our love of liberty as well as the fortitude to defend it. They are each pillars of liberty and have fought through periods where liberty was under siege.”
(The only controversial issue inside his campaign was whether or not his planned fundraisers in London with top financial executives would harm the candidate’s image further, as a too close connection with some of the main players of the scandal-ridden British banking industry isn’t what you really want to highlight these days.)
For Romney, the question is not whether he can emulate the euphoria that greeted Barack Obama’s foreign campaign swing in 2008. Even Romney’s backers acknowledge that there is no way he can compete with the image of Obama before 200,000 cheering Germans at Berlin’s Victory Column. Far more important is whether Romney will be able to use the trip to establish a solid foreign policy doctrine that distinguishes him in a meaningful way from the president.
This said, Romney has cautiously avoided stops at some hot spots like Iraq or Afghanistan – which Obama didn’t in 2008. In fact, one of the few real national security differences between Romney and Obama is on Afghanistan. Despite the unpopularity of this war with the American public, Romney has refused to commit to the 2014 date for a troop withdrawal, something that Obama and NATO leaders have agreed upon. And unlike Obama, Romney has refused to back negotiations with the Taliban.
On the eve of Romney’s international trip, the Republican National Committee released a briefing paper on what it considers to be Obama’s broken foreign policy promises. In this, the paper criticises the president’s Afghanistan strategy based on “managing failures”. “Obama has lowered his goals in Afghanistan in favour of a politically popular withdrawal.” In addition, many rural Afghan police units “remain unprepared to control the Taliban despite US training and recruitment efforts”, lacking the weapons or equipment “needed to take control of security operations after the US troops withdraw”.
In Israel, Romney may be pressured to say more about what his policy would be toward any preemptive Israeli military action against Iran, as well as how a Romney administration would handle the civil war in Syria. Romney has said that he favours helping arm Syrian rebels, but he has stopped short of agreeing with some Republicans in Congress who have called for airstrikes. So far, Romney has repeatedly called Israel the closest and most important US ally in the Middle East and his campaign keeps highlighting the excellent relationship Romney has with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
All in all, Romney will try to use the trip to counter criticism that he does not have a real foreign policy, a charge that the Obama camp plans to aggressively pursue in the coming days.