What Mitt Romney's Israel fumbles say about his foreign policy

Saying controversial things on his recent trip abroad wasn't just about Romney's foot-in-mouth problem, but also a sign of how he'd work the world stage as president

Dana Liebelson

It's that time of year again: Olympians are sweating, fans are watching them sweat, and the U.S. presidential challenger just came home after the traditional "grand tour" overseas. You'd think the media would be paying attention to the amazing feats of the American teenagers in London — I'm looking at you, Gabby Douglas and Missy Franklin — but instead, all the news cycle focuses on are the gaffes of the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney.

Romney isn't in the spotlight because he's doing standing back flips. In Britain, he stumbled all over his own feet: From insulting his London hosts, to making clueless remarks about his wife's horse, it's not surprising that the media was primed and ready to throw just about anything Romney said during the most important stop on his trip, Israel, into the "gaffe" category.

Romney's remarks in Israel say more about his potential presidency than this tight-lipped candidate may want to admit.

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But let's take a deep breath for a second. Romney is hardly the first high-profile American to embarrass himself abroad. He's got good company in plenty of U.S. presidents: Last November, President Obama was overheard bashing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he thought his and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy's mics were off. George W. Bush once gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel a creepy neck rub. And even former president Ronald Reagan famously tried to joke to Americans during the height of the Cold War that "the bombing begins in five minutes."

The real question is: Just how bad were Romney's so-called gaffes in Israel — and do they actually say anything about his foreign policy? Romney himself has complained that "the Fourth Estate" is just using sound bites to distract voters from real issues. However, Romney's remarks in Israel say more about his potential presidency than this tight-lipped candidate may want to admit. Here's a breakdown of two of his most thought-provoking comments:

1. Romney's "racist" comments about Palestinian culture

He said what?

At a high-ticket fundraiser in Jerusalem, Romney made a rather spurious connection between economic prosperity and culture. According to his doozy of a statement: "As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things."

This is the kind of tone-deaf remark that could cause controversy if Romney uttered it just about anywhere in the world. Since Romney was talking about the volcanic relationship between Israel and Palestine, it unsurprisingly set off a huge firestorm.

"It is a racist statement," said Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision, and understanding of this region and its people."

Was it really a gaffe?

Plenty of experts seem to think so: Leila Hilal, director of the New America Foundation Middle East Task Force, tells me that Romney's remarks demonstrate "extraordinary ignorance, insensitivity and bias — none of which are qualities of a true diplomat." Joshua Greenman of the New York Daily News points out, "It is no small thing to suggest that God plays favorites."

But according to Forbes writer Paul Roderick Gregory, critics don't understand that culture — defined as cumulative past experience — doesn't guarantee that a society can solve new problems. In that respect, Gregory says Israeli culture "has proven sustainable" and "scholarly studies show that bad institutions yield low per capita income."

There's nothing wrong with Gregory's use of culture — the definition originates from Douglass North, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, after all — but it should still make voters queasy. Just imagine a scenario in which a U.S. president gives that same speech to another country that's having economic problems, like, say, Greece. Oh, sorry Athens, but your culture wasn't really sustainable. Better luck next time. Here's your copy of The Odyssey back. In terms of plain-old diplomatic sensitivity, this one sure looks like a gaffe.

What does this reveal about Romney's foreign policy?

According to New America's Hilal, this particular statement says more about Romney's interest in courting "conservative domestic constituencies and Israeli donors" than anything about his policy towards the Palestinian territories, which in terms of aid and negotiations, is "not clear."

2. Romney says he'd move Israel's U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem

He said what?

In an interview conducted in Israel, Romney vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from its current location, in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem, which he explicitly called the capital of Israel. As he told CNN: "I think it's long been the policy to ultimately have our embassy in the nation's capital of Jerusalem."

From a historical standpoint, Romney's statement is... confusing. While the U.S. did declare Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel in 1995, and legally required that the embassy be moved by 1999 — recent presidents have dodged the deadline by signing waivers. Additionally, the United Nations doesn't officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital, and every country has placed its international embassy elsewhere (save Paraguay, which stuck its embassy in a Jerusalem suburb.)

The Obama administration has since come out and refuted Romney's statement, saying "It's the view of this administration that the capital is something that should be determined in final negotiations between the parties." Given this grey area, it's not surprising that one Examiner writer jumped to the conclusion that Romney "directly undermined U.S. policy."

Was it really a gaffe?

Nope. Romney is just sticking with the party line. According to Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of Research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, "It's a very commonplace pledge during the election, and it isn't something that only Republicans say. It's consistent with pledges made by President Obama and Bill Clinton as well."

What does it say about Romney's foreign policy?

If history is anything to go by, Romney's pledge is just that — a pledge. According to The Washington Post, "then-candidate George W. Bush slammed the Clinton administration for failing to act on moving the embassy... six months after taking office. However, Bush signed the same waiver as Clinton did — and kept doing it for the next eight years."

As Schanzer tells me, "Once a candidate comes in as president, reality hits, and you find that the State Department is opposed [to moving the embassy]. So the president just keeps kicking the can down the road."

Romney may have made statements in Israel that ruffled feathers, but throwing them in the "gaffe" category is the easy way out. Instead, it's worth analyzing what Romney did — or didn't — mean to say, and what implications his words have for his future interactions on the world stage. Now, can we go back to watching the Olympics?

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Dana Liebelson is a reporter for Mother Jones. A graduate of George Washington University, she has worked for a variety of advocacy organizations in the District, including the Project on Government Oversight, International Center for Journalists, Rethink Media, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Change.org. She speaks Mandarin and German and plays violin in the D.C.-based Indie rock band Bellflur.