The humid lull between the party primaries and the party conventions is the traditional moment for a Presidential challenger to peacock abroad as a prospective Commander-in-Chief. Four years ago, Barack Obama cruised the Iraqi war zone in a helicopter, dazzled throngs in Europe with his then fresh rhetoric of change, and charmed American soldiers in a Kuwaiti gymnasium, where, with preternatural nonchalance, he lofted a three-point shot toward a distant rim. He drained the three, the soldiers roared, and, somewhere back home, John McCain slumped deeper into gloom.
In 2008, Obama’s itinerary was as effective as his performance. He visited Europe to signal a renewed relationship with traditional allies and the Middle East to signal his intense disagreements with George W. Bush and McCain. Obama had promised to end the war in Iraq—a war that Bush had initiated and McCain had championed—and the tour made clear that he, a lightly credentialled senator, fully intended to bring the troops home, but also that he would lead when necessary at the front lines. In facing McCain, a former P.O.W., Obama established both difference and resolve.
Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, lacks a defining foreign-policy disagreement with the President, which makes an overseas campaign trip more problematic. Romney has criticized Obama’s approach to missile-defense negotiations with Russia and the timing of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, but those dissents are very nuanced. More pointedly, Romney has criticized Obama for failing to speak out quickly and ardently enough when pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran took to the streets three years ago; similarly, he has accused the President of timidity in the face of Syria’s popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
These critiques suggested exotic possibilities: Romney might have visited wounded Syrian refugees in Turkey; he might have gone to southern Tunisia, where the fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze two years ago this December, initiating the Arab Spring.
But such boldness does not seem to be part of Romney’s makeup. Last week, he embarked on a far more conventional tour, visiting some of America’s most reliable allies: Great Britain, Israel, and Poland. From the start, there were signs of his tin ear. Throughout the campaign, Romney has alluded with pride to his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics, which had been mired in corruption and chaos before he arrived in Salt Lake City to sort out the mess. He unsettled his British hosts by suggesting that their preparations for the Games were, in certain ways, lacking. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and a fellow-conservative, responded to Romney’s remarks by noting, Britishly, that running the Olympic Games is a great deal easier if they are held “in the middle of nowhere.”
Still in London, Romney attended a campaign fund-raiser in Mayfair, one of the city’s posher precincts. Presidential candidates are allowed to raise money overseas, as long as the donors are American citizens; Obama and McCain both held fund-raisers abroad four years ago. Tickets to the Mayfair event went for fifty thousand dollars or more. The original host, Bob Diamond, the former chief executive of Barclays, had to step aside after resigning from the bank, which was under investigation for manipulating international interest rates to boost its profits. Other Barclays executives, however, reportedly wrote checks to Romney. If Romney is elected President, the regulators he appoints will oversee the examination of Barclays’ role in the interest-rate scandal.
The candidate’s next scheduled stop was Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been blunt about his lack of enthusiasm for the current Administration, in general, and President Obama, personally. Netanyahu has arguably poked around in American domestic politics more conspicuously than any foreign leader in memory, using his influence in Washington to bolster lobbying and campaign-finance groups that mainly support Republican candidates. Romney has dutifully accused Obama of meting out “shabby treatment” to Israel.
The nature of America’s alliance with Israel has generated emotional debate in the United States for decades, and there is nothing wrong with a Presidential challenger airing provocative opinions. But Romney’s statements about Obama and Israel have verged on demagoguery. Obama has been staunchly supportive of Israel, providing robust military aid and intelligence coöperation, particularly on the vexed and dangerous issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Romney is intent on ignoring those facts and trashing the President.
Romney’s rhetoric is aligned with that of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and one of the Republican Party’s leading financial backers. During the Republican primary season, Adelson gave copiously to Newt Gingrich, and he has since donated ten million dollars to Restore Our Future, the Super PAC committed to Romney’s defeat of Obama. Adelson is a fierce supporter of Israel, and particularly of its most right-wing politicians. He has adamantly opposed the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a comprehensive peace with Israel, a goal that has been a mainstay of American Presidents, Republican and Democratic, dating back to George H. W. Bush. Adelson reportedly once referred to Salam Fayyad, a former I.M.F. economist who has won international respect while serving as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, as a “terrorist.”
Romney’s approach to Israel so far indicates a willingness to make common cause with such partners. Even at John McCain’s lowest moments in 2008, it was hard to imagine him tailoring his views on the Middle East to curry favor with a well-heeled contributor.
In any event, Romney is likely to have some trouble undermining the President’s record on national-security issues and foreign policy. Last week, in Colorado, Admiral William McRaven, a Navy SEAL who oversees all American Special Forces, and who supervised the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, was asked to evaluate Obama as a Commander-in-Chief. “I’m not a political guy,” McRaven stipulated. Still, he offered a crisp judgment of Obama’s performance: “Fantastic.” He went on to say that the President and his advisers value facts, take professional advice, and make careful judgments, adding, “I’m very impressed.”
Romney may yet win the White House. Not surprisingly, he has centered his campaign almost solely on the economy and the high unemployment rate. Still, there is a growing perception, even among some of Romney’s own supporters, that, although the slack economy favors his prospects, the character he projects—unfocussed and unmoored to any developed principles—undermines him. By November, the particulars of his summer tour may have faded from voters’ memories, but the questions he has presented about his constancy and independence of mind could persist and defeat him.