Except for a tiny percentage of naturalised citizens, few Americans cast their votes in presidential elections because of a candidate’s foreign policy programmes or, even more important, because of the individual’s grasp of international affairs. Americans vote with their pockets. Always have, always will.
Economic realities notwithstanding, candidates embark on foreign trips that try to establish gravitas, as if to prove that the person knows something about the rest of the world. Truth be told, no such qualifications are required, since a long established bureaucracy — headed by the 40 Committee, a National Security Council group that handles all critical operations — runs America’s key global ties.
A president is usually given multiple choices from which he must opt for one. It’s not as simple as it sounds, but not much more complicated either. In short, foreign policy is too serious a matter to be left to amateurs who perform, jump through various hoops, show their mettle, audition to corporate media, raise gobbles of money from moguls, present useless convention platforms, kiss lots of babies to display some humanity, ride busses to connect with ordinary people even if half of the population lives in six major urban agglomerations, and pretend to know or even care about a million other things.
Enter Mitt Romney, a former governor who wants to be US president, running on Republican party values that, inter alia, were seriously challenged between 2000 and 2008. Although that legacy will take a while to digest, comprehend, and defend, one must be optimistic that one day in the distant future, perhaps, genuine GOP values will be regenerated in line with norms that were once represented by Abraham Lincoln. We are not there yet and the journey might take a while but Mr Romney failed to display gravitas during his most recent visits to Britain, Israel and Poland.
It was worth recalling that the Republican candidate and his neo-conservative advisers dismissed Barack Obama as someone who was not in touch with American values, perceiving the Democratic candidate’s foreign policy initiatives during the past four years as being excessively weak.
They blamed Obama for wooing enemies and disrespecting friends, even if Washington’s courtships of alleged foes were all premature while its supposed contempt of allies, imaginary. Obama seldom showed the cold shoulder to anyone — he even invited a challenged Cambridge cop and his tormented Harvard University academic for a drink at the White House — while he relied on raw power to destroy the weak.
He never apologised to anyone or conceded anything, but delivered countless speeches that, presumably, showed his humanity. Even Norwegians regretted the hasty Nobel Peace Prize most probably awarded to spite his predecessor. In short, Romney’s criticisms were tangential at best because Obama was and remained corporate America’s premier salesman, someone who would never aim for a higher orbit.
In London, Romney offended the Brits — an emotionally mature people that were not easily shocked by would-be Anglo-Saxons — by comparing his own superior management skills when he was the 1999 president and CEO of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (held in 2002), vis-à-vis the assumed poor preparations of the 2012 Olympic Games.
At his second stop, Romney focused on Obama’s main political error, which was not to visit Israel while in office, a breach that could be used to attract Jewish money and votes. Of course, Obama was too busy with successive economic crises at home to actually do anything about the so-called Palestinian-Israeli peace process, allowing the conflict to fester even more while refraining from putting an iota of pressure on Israel.
To be sure, his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was difficult especially after the latter lectured the “most powerful man in the world” in the Oval Office no less. Romney may have forgotten about that for he praised Netanyahu and claimed that Israel’s economic success was the result of “cultural” differences, affirming that he was “overwhelmingly impressed with the hand of providence, … and also the greatness of the human spirit, and how individuals who reach for greatness and have purpose above themselves are able to build and accomplish things that could only be done by a species created in the image of God”.
The encomium intended to be philosophical though it demonstrated paltry understandings of power. Long before Romney was born, London cast the die in Palestine through its infamous Balfour Declaration, which was only partially applied. What mattered in 2012, however, was the Republican candidate’s fishing expedition — which mimicked Obama’s July 2008 visit to Israel — that, presumably demonstrated resolve by standing with Netanyahu against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As for the Poles, they welcomed Romney because they were upset by Washington’s shift of position on missile defence, as well as the US refusal to include Poland in the Visa Waiver programme (the only member of the 25-country Schengen area not able to benefit from this arrangement). Of course, Obama’s reference to “Polish death camps” during the Second World War was a classic gaffe and a sore point in Warsaw, but few non-Poles bothered with such details, save for Romney advisors engaged in Battlestar Galactica-style engagements. By the time Romney left Warsaw, the last stop of his three-country tour, his press pronouncements were severely restricted to avoid additional insults and injuries.
Romney wishes to adopt a US foreign policy based on “moral clarity,” which would require him to transform Moscow into Washington’s “number one geopolitical foe,” impose trade sanctions on China, and blink to Israel when the latter launches military attacks on Iran and Lebanon. None of these options are likely to be fulfilled even if the implications are alarming. Importantly, it is worth noting that such plans could not occur for at least two reasons: Romney’s election is doubtful and, should he somehow manage to defeat Obama, the 45th US president would quickly understand the limits of his power in a rapidly changing world in which the ‘good’ can no longer justify ungodly sacrifices in lives and treasure to defeat putative ‘axes of evil’. Just like Obama realised.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia.