Witcover: Mitt Romney's foreign folly

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney shakes the hand of former Polish President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa during a meeting at Artus Court, in Gdansk. (July 30, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

The big question about Mitt Romney's trip to England, Israel and Poland in the midst of his presidential campaign seems to be, or should be: Why?

In his bid to oust President Barack Obama in November, Romney apparently agrees with the conventional wisdom that the deciding issue will be the state of the domestic economy. And his strongest credential for replacing the president is his business experience and oft-proclaimed acumen for fixing failing enterprises.

So at the very least, even if all had gone well for Romney on the trip, it figured to be a diversion, taking the American public's focus off its chief current concern for a few days. And in this instance, for what? Perhaps immediate interest in the Olympics in London? Or the ongoing stalemate between Palestinians and Israelis? Or a tardy victory lap with Lech Walesa in Poland?


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Of course, all didn't go well, especially in London, where Romney chided his hosts on their "disconcerting" problems with insufficient security preparation and was reminded by Prime Minister David Cameron that London is not "in the middle of nowhere," as is Salt Lake City. Maybe he should have, as they say in Brooklyn, stood home.

Romney's penchant for wandering down verbal cul de sacs also obliged him to retrace his steps in Israel to explain what he meant by blaming the huge gap between the gross domestic product in Israel and the Palestinian Authority on differences in "culture." Beyond having his statistics wrong, the reference set off vapors of racism to perked-up Palestinian ears.

It was said that Romney, accompanied by new best friend Sheldon Adelson, lately the Newt Gingrich mega-benefactor, raised a million or more bucks at a Jerusalem fundraiser. But he certainly didn't need to go there for that purpose, having already picked up a bundle back home, on his own through his "unaffiliated" super PACs.

The Romney campaign has tried to win brownie points with American Jewish voters by trumpeting his going to Israel while pointing out that Obama, supposedly the country's great friend and defender, has not set foot there in his first term. But that fact is not likely to cut much at all into the solid support for Obama in the Jewish community at home that went for him by more than three to one in 2008.

No, the only understandable rationale for the trip was to give Romney at least a modicum of credibility in foreign policy, an area that has been Obama's strongest in his first term, capped by his ordered and successful Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden. American combat forces also have come out of Iraq on his watch, and Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi was removed with only limited U.S. involvement.

Although Romney did draw some respectable crowds abroad, there were none that compared to those that gathered for past American travelers of both parties, from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, to Bill Clinton and Obama himself. To be sure, it helps to be the president at the time, not just a presidential pretender.

There may be some political value back home for Romney being photographed with Cameron and standing outside 10 Downing St., where other American leaders have been greeted in the past by the likes of Winston Churchill. But Romney can be dismissed, as he was by London's Mayor Boris Johnson, as "a guy called Mitt Romney," which can draw a good laugh from the crowd.

So it's back to the home front for Romney to do what he can, in the four weeks before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., is poised to nominate him, to warm an American electorate that remains mysteriously indifferent to him. For all that coolness, he remains close to or even with Obama in most of the reputable public-opinion polls. But a suspicion clings that much of his strength derives from the fact that his name is not Barack Obama.

Perhaps it's a victory of sorts if Romney's foreign sally is judged as not having inflicted any major damage to his campaign back home. Such is the state of the current slog to both national party conventions ahead, neither of which promises any fireworks.

Tribune Media Services columnist Jules Witcover's email address is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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