WASHINGTON — A generation ago, it was the three I’s. A presidential challenger’s obligatory foreign trip meant Ireland, Italy and Israel. Mitt Romney’s itinerary is slightly different: Britain, Poland and Israel.
Not quite the naked ethnic appeal of yore. Each destination suggests a somewhat more subtle affinity: Britain, playing to our cultural connectedness with the Downton Abbey folks who’ve been at our side in practically every fight for the last hundred years; Poland, representing the “new Europe,” the Central Europeans so unashamedly pro-American; Israel, appealing to most American Jews but also to an infinitely greater number of passionately sympathetic evangelical Christians.
Unlike Barack Obama, Romney abroad will not be admonishing his country, criticizing his president or declaring himself a citizen of the world. Indeed, Romney should say nothing of substance, just offer effusive expressions of affection for his hosts — and avoid needless contretemps, like his inexplicably dumb and gratuitous critique of Britain’s handling of the Olympic Games. The whole point is to show appreciation for close allies, something the current president has conspicuously failed to do.
On the contrary. Obama started his presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office. Then came the State Department official who denied the very existence of a U.S.-British special relationship, saying: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world.”
To be topped off by the slap they received over the Falkland Islands, an issue the Brits had considered closed since they repelled the Argentine invasion there 30 years ago. They were not amused by the Obama administration’s studied neutrality between Britain and Argentina, with both a State Department spokesman and the president ostentatiously employing “Malvinas,” the politically charged Argentine name, interchangeably with “Falklands.” (Although the president flubbed it, calling them the “Maldives,” an Indian Ocean island chain 8,000 miles away.)
As for Poland, it was stunned by Obama’s unilateral cancellation of a missile defense agreement signed with the Bush 43 administration. Having defied vociferous Russian threats, the Poles expected better treatment than to wake up one morning — the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, no less — to find themselves the victim of Obama’s “reset” policy of accommodation with Russia. So much for protection from Russian bullying, something they thought they had finally gained with the end of the Cold War.
And then there is Israel, the most egregious example of Obama’s disregard for traditional allies. Obama came into office explicitly intent on creating “daylight” between himself and Israel, believing that by tilting toward the Arabs, they would be more accommodating.
The opposite happened. (Surprise!) When Obama insisted on a building freeze in Jerusalem that no U.S. government had ever demanded and no Israeli government would ever accept, the Palestinian Authority saw clear to become utterly recalcitrant. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas openly told The Washington Post that he would just sit on his hands and wait for America to deliver Israel.
Result? Abbas refused to negotiate. Worse, he tried to undermine the fundamental principle of U.S. Middle East diplomacy — a negotiated two-state solution — by seeking unilateral U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood, without talks or bilateral agreements.
In Israel, Romney will undoubtedly say nothing new. He’ll just reiterate his tough talk on Iran’s nuclear program. But I suspect he’ll let the Israelis know privately that contrary to the conventional wisdom that his hawkishness signals his readiness to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, his real intent is to signal that, unlike Obama, he is truly committed to permitting Israel to do what it needs to defend itself. This will be welcome news to a nation that has never asked anyone to fight on its behalf, just a green light to defend itself without impediments or veiled threats from its friends.
Most important, however, is to just show up. That’s 80 percent of life, Woody Allen once noted. No need to say much. Romney’s very presence will make the statement.
To the Israelis: “We understand your unique plight. If and when you do as you must, we will stand by you.” To the Poles: “You can count on the American umbrella. I will never leave you out in the cold.” And to the British: “We are grateful for your steadfast solidarity in awful places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The relationship truly is special.”
“And one more thing. Still have that bust of Churchill?”
Righting his ship late Thursday in London, Romney did say he wants Winnie back in the Oval Office.