Mitt Romney took full advantage of his last day on U.S. soil before departing on a week-long trip to Britain, Israel and Poland. Speaking on Tuesday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Reno, Nev., the Republican presidential candidate noted that he will not criticize President Obama while overseas. So he then did everything he could to try to shred the president’s foreign policy record while still at home.
This was as tough a speech as Romney has delivered during the campaign. He found reason to criticize Obama in connection with virtually every hot spot around the world: Israel, Egypt, Iran, Russia, China, Poland. He also hit the president for actions at home, such as accepting a budget sequestration that threatens big cuts in defense spending and condoning national security leaks within his administration.
Romney’s speech was billed as the table-setter for a journey that inevitably will be compared with the one Obama took four years ago as a candidate. In a pre-trip conference call, his advisers sought to lower expectations. Romney, they said, will learn and listen in three countries that are among the staunchest U.S. allies. Given those constraints, Romney decided to get everything off his chest before leaving.
But the sharp critique will heighten the importance of his trip while subjecting him to greater scrutiny and more questions about his foreign policy. The speech is likely to touch off a more vigorous debate between the two sides about a topic that has been mostly in the background this year. Some of that will follow Romney overseas.
Having used his time in Reno to blast the president, Romney may find it difficult to mute his criticism abroad. He will be asked at every opportunity to explain himself. He plans to give speeches in Israel and Poland, and aides have said those will be opportunities for him to say where he stands and, by implication, where he differs from the president.
Obama’s overseas trip in 2008 set a new standard for presidential candidates in terms of length and ambition. It underscored that, at a time when Obama was trying to convince Americans that he was capable of leading, he was already an international celebrity and someone considered an antidote to eight years of President George W. Bush, who was deeply unpopular in Europe.
For Romney, there is little value in trying to compete with the optics of Obama’s trip. Obama drew 200,000 people for a speech in Berlin, was fawned over by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and overshadowed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), his Republican rival.
Romney is not a political phenomenon. He will get a thorough look from his hosts, if not an outpouring of affection from the people. The question is: To what end? Will this trip be judged as a political or a substantive success?
Romney’s speech Tuesday critiqued Obama’s record in an area where the public has generally given the president good marks — far better certainly than on the economy or the budget. The address was, perhaps necessarily, short on details about where and to what degree Romney’s policies would depart from the president’s.
Obama’s 2008 trip was a major political success, but not because he broke ground on foreign policy. His careful rhetoric in Israel was meant to reassure doubters that he would stand firmly with the Israelis. But during his term, U.S. relations with the Israeli government have been badly strained. On Iraq, Obama was pressed to say whether he thought Bush’s troop-surge policy was helping to end the war. On that he fudged. His speech in Berlin was less memorable than the images of the people stretching from Victory Column back toward the Brandenburg Gate.
In Reno, Romney sounded Reaganesque themes of muscularity and strength. What many abroad may wonder, given the changes in the world in the decades since Ronald Reagan left the White House, is whether Romney would model his policies after those of George W. Bush, who often bucked the GOP foreign policy establishment, or of president George H.W. Bush, who embodied it.
Will Romney use his trip to offer any clearer sense of whether he would represent a real or mostly rhetorical departure from the policies of the Obama administration? His critique of the president’s early stance on Iran is long-stated. What would he do that Obama has not done to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? What would he say privately to the Israelis with regard to a preemptive strike against Iran? Would he give them a green light to do as they choose?
Romney’s criticism of Obama on missile defense in Europe also is long-stated. But his description of Russia as a major foreign policy foe has been criticized even by some of the traditionalists in his own party. More broadly, how would he balance his campaign rhetoric accusing Obama of trying to turn the United States into a European-style economy with the need to reassert commonality with Europe on economic and security grounds?
On the economy, what would he do to press Europe to deal with problems in Greece and Spain that could affect this country?
Obama’s trip included stops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney will travel to neither. On Tuesday, he again criticized the president for being hasty in trying to withdraw U.S. surge forces from Afghanistan and for not heeding the advice of generals on the ground, who had argued for a slower pace. But if he accepts the administration’s and NATO’s timetable for ending the operation by 2014, does he differ from Obama on the issue?
Romney plans to give television interviews while overseas. In London, those sit-downs will be an opportunity for him to showcase his role in turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics and to discuss his foreign policy views. But the Reno speech will provoke more intense questioning. In Israel, he can expect some pointed queries about the Middle East, the Arab Spring and Iran.
Romney’s schedule appears aimed at limiting questions. Whether he will interact much with the reporters traveling with him is unclear.
His trip is more than an escape from the political battles at home or a circuit breaker after the pounding he has taken from Obama. He cannot afford to look back on this journey as a lost opportunity or a time in which he fell out of the spotlight. How well he uses his time to fill out his profile, answer questions about where he stands and demonstrate command will be the measure of the trip’s value to his bid.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to washingtonpost/postpolitics.com.