WASHINGTON (JTA) – It’s foreign policy, stupid, at least for the next two weeks or so — and it’s the Middle East, especially.
Mitt Romney’s planned trip to Britain, Poland and Israel beginning at the end of this week has shifted the presidential campaign debate for now from jobs, the economy and the candidates’ past to how they would deal with an increasingly fluid world.
Israel particularly has figured in the debate, with proxies for each side insisting that their candidate’s policies would better secure the Jewish state and accusing the other side of politicizing the issue for gain among Jewish voters.
Advisers to Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor, last week outlined the agenda for the candidate’s overseas trip during a call for the media. They kept the dates vague, but Romney is known to be planning on attending the opening of the London Olympics on Friday and a fundraising dinner in Jerusalem on Sunday night.
The emphasis in the call was on Romney as statesman rather than candidate. Advisers insisted repeatedly that the trip was more of a “listening” tour and not one in which he would announce policy initiatives.
Dan Senor, a top Middle East adviser to Romney, noted that Romney’s first Israel meeting will be with Daniel Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel (and incidentally his chief surrogate to the Jewish community in the 2008 election.)
“The focus of the trip is really about learning, listening, receiving briefings from U.S., Israeli and even Palestinian officials abroad,” Senor said, “and it’s about continuing to project Governor Romney’s strong view that American needs to stand by its allies — particularly allies under siege like Israel.”
Andrea Saul, the Romney campaign spokeswoman, said that would not keep the campaign from highlighting differences with Obama — but it would be done stateside. Romney has said in the past that he defers to the policy of not criticizing American leaders while overseas.
“It is solely an opportunity to listen,” she said. “The contrast will be kept in the United States.”
In its own call on Monday, the Obama campaign challenged Romney to make clear his policy differences with the president during the tour, saying that Romney has done little other than criticize the president.
Robert Gibbs, the former White House spokesman, included a gibe at Romney’s planned fundraiser in Jerusalem on Sunday evening.
“The American people require something greater than their candidates than speaking to a fundraising reception,” he said.
Gibbs and others also hammered Romney’s recent comment that on Israel he would do the “opposite” of Obama.
“What are you going to tell the Israelis in terms of doing the opposite of what Barack Obama has done?” Gibbs asked.
Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Obama whose charge was the Middle East, noted the increased U.S.-Israel defense cooperation under Obama’s watch, including Obama’s backing for enhanced Israeli missile defense systems and a forthcoming U.S.-Israel anti-missile exercise — the largest of its kind.
Romney should “say exactly what he would do that is different from what President Obama is doing,” Kahl said.
When it comes to Iran, he added, “The president has pledged to use all tools of American power to prevent Iran from getting a weapon.”
Few of Romney’s specific recommendations, particularly regarding Iran, differ from the president’s; both favor enhanced sanctions, increased isolation and a heightened U.S. Persian Gulf presence. However, Romney has suggested that he would not pressure Israel, as the United States has, to play down a military option. And regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Romney has said he would not make public his differences with Israel, as Obama did in the first two years of his term.
Saul, in an email to JTA, emphasized broad differences in the approaches of the two candidates, repeating a Romney campaign theme that Obama has sacrificed traditional alliances in a bid to woo rivals.
“It is clear that President Obama’s foreign policy is confused, ineffective and has weakened our influence in every region of the world,” she said. “Governor Romney understands the difference between our allies and those who will challenge us. He will stand by allies and restore American strength, and resolve to protect our interests abroad and defend our values.”
The candidates highlighted their foreign policy stands this week in addresses to the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national convention in Reno, Nev. Although the speeches did not stress Israel, tensions with Iran featured prominently.
“We’ve applied the strongest sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea — nations that cannot be allowed to threaten the world with nuclear weapons,” Obama said to applause on Monday.
Romney in his speech the following day faulted the Obama administration for what he said were political leaks regarding its involvement in secret and successful anti-Iran operations coordinated with Israel.
“This conduct is contemptible,” he said. “It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation, with explanation and consequence.”
National security leaks that burnish an incumbent’s foreign policy reputation have become common in recent years. The last Bush administration leaked in its first term information about its pushback against al-Qaida and claims of Iraq war successes, and it punished critics with leaks.
Romney also chided Obama for his tense relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referring to a “hot mic” moment in which former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Obama commiserated on their frustrations with the Israeli leader.
“President Obama is fond of lecturing Israel’s leaders,” he said. “He was even caught by a microphone deriding them. He has undermined their position, which was tough enough as it was.”
Kahl in the Obama campaign call suggested that the Israel portion of Romney’s trip was aimed at scoring points among Jewish American voters.
“This isn’t the time for anyone to be playing politics with our foreign policy in the region,” he said, noting, for instance, the turmoil in Israel’s neighbor, Syria.
Much of the call described the extent of Obama’s visit as a candidate in 2008, particularly to Sderot, where Obama said he would support victims of Hamas rocket fire from the neighboring Gaza Strip.
Obama has not visited Israel as president — Romney has said it will be the first country he visits as president — and here the Obama campaign appeared defensive, with Kahl pledging a presidential visit during the second term.
“We can expect him to visit Israel in a second term should he be elected,” he said, noting that Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did not visit Israel in their first terms. “Being a friend of Israel shouldn’t be judged by a travel itinerary. I don’t think this is a serious policy difference — it’s basically a distraction.”
The promise of a second-term visit drew a pushback from Republicans.
“It’s politically inspired, coming as it does only days before Mitt Romney heads off to Jerusalem,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement released by the Romney campaign. “One should not play political games with U.S. foreign policy, particularly at a moment when the Middle East is a tinderbox.”
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, in his own statement released through the Romney campaign noted that Obama had visited other Middle East capitals and said the announcement “comes four years too late.”
Obama has visited Cairo, Egypt and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His predecessor, George W. Bush, also visited Arab capitals in his first term and was as close to Israel as four miles away in Aqaba, Jordan, but did not visit until the last year of his second term.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called Cantor’s statement “politically charged” and said it was the Romney campaign playing politics with Israel.
“The bottom line is that President Obama has been a steadfast supporter of the Jewish state,” she said in a statement, “and numerous Israeli leaders have spoken out publicly to agree.”