As Governor Romney returns to the U.S., somewhat battered by foreign and domestic press responses to his three-nation swing, most observers are paying attention to the impact the turbulence will have on the presidential race.That’s a mistake; it won’t have much. We are still more than three months away from the election, and although political junkies have been absorbed in the election story for more than a year now, most of the voters who will actually decide the issue (that small number of true swing voters) aren’t focusing on the campaign just yet. And there will be many “gaffes”, real and press-manufactured, on both sides before the end, many empty controversies, many cotton candy scandals (fluffed out to look gaudy and impressive but thin and unsubstantial in reality) before the polls close. Romney’s overseas trip will be lost in the mists of time long before anything in this election really matters.But that doesn’t mean that the Romney team’s problems on this trip don’t matter. If Governor Romney actually makes it into the White House, the problems he encountered this week are going to crop up again and again, and if he and his foreign policy team can’t figure out how to manage them better, he’s going to have a bumpy ride in the Oval Office.His core problem isn’t that he did or said anything stupid or undiplomatic. While his speeches and public remarks didn’t soar high above the usual standard, this was hardly an exhibit of unparalleled, bumbling incompetence. Nor were the policy positions he expressed particularly out of line; there were a few infelicitous phrases—especially in London and Jerusalem—that ruffled a few sensibilities, but no lasting damage was done either to U.S. foreign policy, Governor Romney’s reputation, or to relations with any of the key players with whom a new president must engage. British prime ministers are very pragmatic about seeking good relations with incumbent presidents, and Romney can hardly have less success with the Palestinians than the current White House, whose record on advancing Arab-Israeli peace is the worst in forty years.But lessons must be learned. What Governor Romney and his team encountered is the strong headwind that any Republican to the left of Olympia Snowe can expect to encounter when dealing with foreign affairs. Much of the global press is, if anything, to the left of the U.S. mainstream media, and the conventional wisdom among global elites is closer to the views of George Soros than it is to those of, say, John Bolton.This is a fact, and it is something that any Republican president and his foreign policy team must develop a strategy for managing. President Obama is killing people right and left through drone strikes, has kept Guantanamo open for business in violation of his campaign pledges, is on a course for war with Iran, and is continuing Bush policies on a variety of key issues in the Middle East and elsewhere—but he isn’t encountering anything like the hurricane of hatred and resistance that George Bush had to face every day.If Governor Romney plans to follow a similar or even somewhat tougher set of policies, he—and especially his team—have to figure out how to do it without stirring up enough opposition to undermine his ability to get things done. It’s a fine line to walk. You can’t let global press and elite opposition dictate your foreign policy, but you have to develop a strategy that minimizes their ability to wear you down and block you.This is harder to accomplish on the campaign trail than in the Oval Office; once you are the president, foreigners have some incentives to work with you—incentives they don’t have when you are out of office. A candidate in any case worries more about offending the folks back home than about alienating foreigners.Even so, on the evidence of this trip the candidate and his team still have a few dance steps to learn. It isn’t necessary to duck controversy to be effective. Ronald Reagan managed to keep key allies on board with his aggressive missile and defense programs in the 1980s. But Reagan combined two important capacities: at one level he was a conviction politician whose key policies reflected a set of ideas that were deeply felt and carefully vetted. At another level, he was a gifted and seasoned performer with a professional actor’s ability to gauge the reactions and play to the emotions of any audience he was with.Much of the criticism Governor Romney encountered this week was unfair, but so what? If he wins in November, he will face four long years of unrelenting, bitter criticism at home and abroad. He will be the target of orchestrated disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Enemies and opponents (not always the same thing) will seek to turn global and domestic public opinion against him, exploiting every blunder and manufacturing blunders where no real ones exist. He will be judged by entirely different standards than President Obama—he will certainly not get a Nobel Peace Prize just for showing up.This is unfair, but it’s real life, and the Governor and his team need to figure out how they will deal with it. This is less about winning the election than about figuring out how to govern if they win, but even in the middle of a tight campaign it would be good to know that some senior people with the candidate’s confidence are thinking this problem through.
Romney’s Foreign Takeaways
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