Romney to ‘Listen and Learn’ During Visit to Key Allies

By Patrick Goodenough | July 23, 2012 | 2:24 AM EDT

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at an event in Bow, N.H.,on Friday, July 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

( – Amid a myriad of pressing domestic issues, foreign policy will elbow its way onto the campaign agenda in the coming days as Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney travels to three of America’s most important allies, a visit likely to be dominated by the turmoil in the Middle East.

Before he gets to the turbulent region next week, however, Romney will visit a Britain caught up in the excitement – and security concerns – of London 2012. His presence at the opening ceremony on Friday will serve as a reminder, his campaign hopes, of his role in rescuing an initially troubled winter Olympics in Salt Lake City a decade ago.

Apart from the Olympics and two fundraisers on Thursday, the more substantive portion of his itinerary includes meetings with the leaders of the three major political parties – Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, and opposition Labor leader Ed Miliband – as well as former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Britain invariably tops lists of U.S. allies, although the traditional Conservative-Republican, Labor-Democrat political ties have frayed somewhat – a shift seen most clearly in Blair’s firm support for, and vocal Tory opposition to, President Bush’s war in Iraq. (In 2004, then-Conservative leader Michael Howard was publicly disinvited from a visit to the White House after he criticized Blair’s support for the war.)

The strains outlived Bush and Blair. Some senior British Conservatives openly supported the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s tribute to President Obama during a White House state dinner last March – when he said Obama had “pressed the reset button on the moral authority of the entire free world” – raised eyebrows and prompted some derision on both sides of the Atlantic.

Romney will trod this territory carefully, focusing on historical links and shared interests that outweigh political policy differences.

Briefing reporters on the trip, Romney campaign foreign policy chief Alex Wong cited global economic difficulties, Mideast instability and the Iranian nuclear issue, and said the candidate’s London visit will highlight the understanding that the U.S.-British relationship remains “as important as ever.”

From the U.K., Romney is due to visit Israel where, according to his campaign, he will “build on relationships” he already has with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, as well as with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – but not, apparently, with P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Although campaign staffers stressed that Romney would use the trip to “listen and learn” rather than deliver policy pronouncements, his visit to Jerusalem will inevitably drawn attention to the  at-times frosty relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.

Like other candidates in the Republican campaign at the time, Romney chastised Obama in May 2011 for endorsing future Israeli and Palestinian states with borders based on the “1967 lines” as a starting point, accusing the president of throwing Israel “under the bus.”

Romney repeated the criticism last January, saying during a CNN presidential debate the president had “time and time again shown distance from Israel and that has created in my view a greater sense of aggression on the part of the Palestinians.”

On television talk shows Sunday, Netanyahu declined interviewers’ attempts to draw him into U.S. politics.

“I will say that I will receive Mitt Romney with the same openness that I received another presidential candidate, then Senator Barack Obama, when he came almost four years ago, almost the same time in the campaign, to Israel,” he said on Fox News Sunday.

On CBS’s Face the Nation, Netanyahu said he would tell Romney what he told candidate Obama: “I’ll tell him about Israel’s desire for peace and also about Israel’s concern with the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons – unfortunately it’s still with us four years later.”

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, seen here during a White House meeting on March 5, 2012, have not always seen eye-to-eye. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Obama ‘abdicated leadership’

Romney has visited Israel three times before, according to the campaign – early last year, in January 2007 – shortly before he formally announced his candidacy for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination – and on a family visit in the late 1990s.

Apart from the ongoing Iranian nuclear standoff, this trip comes at a time of great uncertainty about the regional implications of the escalating conflict in Syria and developments in post-Mubarak Egypt.

In his foreign policy platform, released last October, Romney pledged in his first 100 days to place all diplomatic and assistance efforts in the greater Middle East under a single regional director – “[o]ne official with responsibility and accountability will set regional priorities and train our soft power on ensuring the Arab Spring realizes its promise.”

Regarding Egypt and other states in transition, Romney warned of “destabilizing jihadist forces and Iranian backed elements” and said his administration would “support those individuals and groups that are seeking to instill lasting democratic values and build sturdy democratic institutions.”

His platform called Syrian President Bashar Assad “a vicious dictator, a killer, and a proxy for Iran” and said the U.S. should isolate and pressurize his regime “to increase likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government.”

Last Thursday, after Russia and China exercised their third joint veto to kill a Western-led U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, Romney reprised earlier accusations that Obama had “abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy” to the United Nations and its Syria envoy, Kofi Annan.

The Romney platform’s declared support for Israel “as a Jewish state,” commitment to helping it maintain its strategic military edge, and rejection of any attempt by the P.A. to settle issues unilaterally are similar to Obama’s stance.

Where it does differ is the Republican candidate’s pledge to “reduce assistance to the Palestinians if they continue to pursue United Nations recognition or form a unity government that includes Hamas, a terrorist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction.”

While Obama defunded the U.N.’s cultural agency for granting admission to “Palestine” last fall – as he was mandated to do by U.S. law – he has not tied the P.A.’s attempts to join U.N. bodies to ongoing U.S. funding.

From Israel, Romney travels to Poland where he will meet in Gdansk with former president and anti-communist Solidarity trade union leader, Lech Walesa, and with current Polish leaders.

The former Warsaw Pact country, which joined NATO in 1999, has proven a committed U.S. ally, strongly supportive of the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and prepared to risk Russian anger over its agreement to host U.S. missile defense facilities as a shield against Iran. A missile interceptor site is scheduled to be established in Poland in 2018.

Ahead of Romney’s trip he is due to deliver a speech Tuesday to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an opportunity to expand on foreign policy positions laid out earlier in the campaign. Obama will also address the convention, in Reno, Nevada, on Monday.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow