Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, July 10, 2012.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, July 10, 2012. Photo by Reuters
Text size

LONDON – While Israel’s leadership is feeling very confident about treating presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney like a visiting head of state when he arrives in Jerusalem on Sunday – including a meeting with President Shimon Peres and an intimate dinner with Bibi and Sara Netanyahu – in London, they have yet to decide whether he will be allowed in through the front door of 10 Downing Street.

There is nothing coincidental about the timing of Romney’s landing in the United Kingdom, 48 hours before the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Games. For many Americans, the GOP nominee’s most significant lifetime achievement to date was not his governorship of the great state of Massachusetts or his controversial record as a private businessman, but his stewardship of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, where he stepped in and salvaged a failing organization, staging one of the most efficient and successful Olympiads in memory. This is the legacy upon which he hopes to capitalize, in the hope that it will trump the Obama machine’s efforts to paint him as an out-of-touch tycoon with no feeling for ordinary American workers, whose jobs he outsourced overseas.

For Romney, London – the first stop on his only foreign tour of the election campaign – will be a welcome respite and useful campaign spot, but for his hosts, who have enough to deal with as it is, the visitor poses a diplomatic and political headache.

Prime Minister David Cameron will meet Romney at Downing Street Thursday, but nothing about this meeting is simple. It’s true that Obama himself set a precedent when he went on a world tour during his campaign in 2008 and was greeted by 100,000 enthusiastic Germans in Berlin.

But when Obama came to London, then prime minister Gordon Brown stuck to protocol and did not greet him at the front door, instead staging their joint photograph in 10 Downing Street’s back garden. The official reason was that Obama was not a head of state, just a candidate. At the time Cameron, then leader of the opposition, criticized Brown for not giving Obama a grander reception – and now the tables are turned.

Cameron has to make a difficult choice: to risk alienating the man who could be the next president of the only world superpower or souring his relationship with the man who could remain in the White House for another four years. To make matters worse, Cameron himself created another precedent a few months ago when he refused to meet with Francois Hollande, then the Socialist candidate for the president of France; Cameron’s office explained that the prime minister did not meet with candidates in the midst of elections.

France may be just across the English Channel, but it’s not the United States. So now Cameron is meeting Romney, but his office has still not said whether the Republican candidate will be greeted at the Downing Street doorstep or elsewhere.
The British have less to worry about from Romney, who has made repeated references to the two nations’ joint heritage (he descends from Mormon converts in northern England) and who anyway is not in great need of a photo-op with Cameron, who is almost anonymous in America.

Romney is in London for the Olympics and two fundraising events with wealthy American bankers working in the city. The British are more concerned with Obama, who has a mixed record when it comes to transatlantic relations.

While previous American presidents since Roosevelt have emphasized Britain’s role as America’s premier ally, Obama started his term by sending back to the British Embassy a bust of Winston Churchill that had been in the Oval Office. A few months later, he refused to hold a bilateral meeting with Gordon Brown when the British prime minister was in the U.S. for a United Nations General Assembly and a G20 conference, in what was seen by many in Britain as a personal snub.

On the other hand, Obama has since then been on a successful state visit to Britain and Cameron not only conferred with him in the White House in March but also accompanied Obama on a road-trip to Ohio, one of this election’s most crucial battleground states.

If Cameron indeed steps out into Downing Street to greet Romney tomorrow, it will be because he thinks the Republican seems to have a good chance of beating Obama and because he hopes that he bought enough favor on the Ohio visit just in case the president stays in office.