Less than flattering reviews in the U.S. and world media of the Republican candidate for President Mitt Romney's foreign trip to Britain, Israel and Poland will probably make his campaign further downplay the significance of foreign policy in these elections. At any rate, the November 6 vote probably won't be decided on Romney's compliments to Israelis who made the desert bloom, or even the interesting endorsement of the former Polish President Lech Walesa, who told Romney the world needs him to succeed - but who later on admitted to the local news channel that the Republican candidate "doesn't really yet have" charisma and "still needs to do some rallying."
There is no chance the Obama campaign will let it go easily - not with the incumbent's 15-point lead over Romney in polls on foreign policy. The law, of course, separates affairs of state from the campaign - but Tuesday's attack on Romney seemed well coordinated. White House spokesman Jay Carney issued quite diplomatic criticism, saying, "There are a number of things that have been said about the president's foreign policy record that are inaccurate and that I'd be happy to contest," adding that "contrary to suggestions from critics, the Russians continue to oppose and we continue to press forward with that missile defense program (in Eastern Europe ), because it's the right thing to do. That would be one issue where some of the criticism was off the mark, to say the least." Carney also gently hinted that Romney's gaffes might demonstrate that he is not qualified to be president. "Presidents, senators, congressmen, former governors need to be very mindful of the impact because of the diplomatic implications of what you say overseas. Even though the focus in this campaign and the focus of this president at this time is on the economy, the job includes as an enormous part of it the exercise of national security policy and diplomacy. And it's a very important part of the job, and getting it right matters greatly to America's standing in the world and to the successful execution of American foreign policy."
In a conference call with reporters, Obama campaign representatives were far less diplomatic, saying Romney "failed the first rule of overseas trips" for politicians - "do no harm."
"He went to three countries and took a total of three questions from reporters. We know that the role of commander-in-chief and diplomat is an enormously important one, giving that any word wrong can have grave consequences - and he has shown he might not have the discipline to handle this delicate issue," said Robert Gibbs, former White House spokesman and currently adviser with "Obama for America."
"I heard the Romney campaign strategists saying that a foreign trip doesn't matter," Gibbs continued. "The most precious resource [in a campaign] is time. You don't spend seven days on a foreign trip if it doesn't matter. He set the lowest expectations and offended our closest allies, created negative reactions in one of the most sensitive regions of the world."
Despite the criticism, Romney stood by his statements in an op-ed in the conservative National Review magazine, saying that "culture does matter," and though admitting "Israelis, Palestinians, Poles, Russians, Iranians, Americans, all human beings deserve to enjoy the blessings of a culture of freedom and opportunity," he asked again: "What exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?"
Coinciding with the final day of Romney's foreign trip, the Washington D.C.-based liberal advocacy organization Center for American Progress sponsored a series of discussions on Romney's policies titled "Romney University." Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Douglas Wilson, who participated in the panel on Romney's foreign policy, told Haaretz after the event that foreign policy is "one of the most relevant factors a voter can consider in choosing a president. You are choosing a commander-in-chief, someone who is going to be our leader in the world, helping to shape and define the world's understanding of America, its values and policies - to abdicate or to subsume the importance of that in one's vote is making a big mistake."
Some Israelis took offense, I told him, at the criticism Romney faced for calling Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel.
"I am not going to have any comment on the specifics of the governor and his trip - he said what he said. What I am going to say is that this administration has been unwavering in its support of Israel, you saw your defense minister and president recently called this administration the best friends of Israel, and in terms of security support it's the best and strongest that we've ever seen. This administration is not trying to play politics with Israel, this administration is trying to make sure that we stand tall and stand with our ally Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East on common values and common interests, and this administration's actions speak for themselves."
Another talking point of the Obama campaign and his supporters is that Romney had nothing new to offer with regard to Iran policy.
"This administration made clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, that it's not a matter of containment, it's a matter of prevention. Governor Romney is now coming around to it, and I appreciate his appreciation of this administration's policy," Wilson said.
The fight for the 2%
It became clear yesterday that despite the abundance of meetings with representatives of the Jewish community this week, Romney was not yet done with this particular 2% of the population. He rolled out his "Jewish Americans for Romney Coalition," chaired by Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, former Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle, former Senators Norm Coleman and Rudy Boschwitz, and Florida congressional candidate Adam Hasner.
Romney said in a statement that he is "genuinely honored to have so many of (the Jewish community's ) leading thinkers, diplomats, and political leaders supporting my campaign. Having just visited Israel at a critical juncture in the history of the Middle East, I am persuaded that now, more than ever, America needs to stand with Israel. I will extend the hand of friendship because our partnership is not merely a strategic alliance but a force for good in the world."
Cantor urged all American Jews, "Democrat, Republican, and independent alike to give a serious look at Mitt Romney's candidacy," calling him "an unwavering supporter of the State of Israel" who will "leave no stone unturned in the effort to keep Israel secure."
It's certain that along with the barrage of new anti-Obama ads produced by the Sheldon Adelson-backed Republican Jewish Coalition, Romney's supporters will do everything possible to make this 2% at least hesitate at the polling stations. To judge by the polls in battleground states with a substantial Jewish presence, it's an uphill battle: according to the Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times polls, Obama is leading in Florida 51%-45%, in Pennsylvania 53%-42%, and in Ohio 50%-44%.
Losing the young
Since one of the favorite mentions in election campaigns is the future of America's younger generation, it's not a bad time to wonder whether all these "unwavering" (and usually void of any nuance ) statements on Israel is what Jewish American students want to hear. Former Clinton pollster Mark Penn's firm Penn Schoen & Berland released survey of 600 U.S. Jewish undergraduates and graduate students, showing that support for Israel is important to 78% of them. However, a survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies discovered that only about one-third of American college students in general support Israel - as opposed to 61% support for Israel among the general population. This doesn't mean that the remainder support the Palestinians - about 18% of students sympathize with Palestinian side, which is not much different from the findings of the February Gallup Poll among the general population. The most popular side was "neither," with 53% of college students accusing both Israel and the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process.
Professor Yoram Peri, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, told Haaretz that "during the election year, candidates of both parties are courting the Jewish vote, but demonstrations of support such as we saw this week in Jerusalem with Mitt Romney's visit should not obscure the fact that Israel is losing the support of the generation of young Americans and well as many liberals. In the long term, it could have an impact on the relations between the two countries."
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