The Ugly American: Mitt Romney’s Disastrous Overseas Excursion

Though his advisors keep putting Romney is a message box, he keeps bursting out with gaffes, writes Robert Shrum.

Carsten Koall / Getty Images

In Jerusalem, they tried to strap Mitt tightly to the roof of his message box. 

A fundraiser was closed to the press, presumably to facilitate the candidate’s crass pandering, and perhaps to fend off a photo op with the Jabba the Hut of the campaign wars, casino plutocrat and Super Pac-Man Sheldon Adelson. Finally, the Romney strategists allowed a few reporters to attend, less they appear fearful that their candidate might blurt out another on-the-record political solecism.

A chastened Romney mostly stayed on course by bloviating ritual fealty of Israeli security, and denouncing “containment” of Iran as a “delusion.” (Of course, Barack Obama hasn’t ruled out force either, but that doesn’t matter to Romney.) The Republican nominee-to-be added the pretty standard, wholly pre-presidential endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He also skirted but didn’t transgress the off-limits line against criticizing American foreign policy abroad; his coded jibes at the president, never mentioned by name, were just veiled enough. 

Romney was programmed to be gaffe-free as he made a political pilgrimage to the Holy Land in search of the holy grail of Jewish votes back home. The programming was almost successful-- and it was certainly a direct result of his previous stop on a not-so-grand journey. In Israel, Mitt was supposed to act like a mutt brought to heel after he earned the worst welcome in London since King Richard II was deposed following an ill-timed and inconclusive invasion of Ireland. Romney was in the stadium at the opening ceremony of the 30th Olympiad, sitting in a relative and blessed anonymity, a forced smile on his face. It had been a painful few days as he auditioned on the world stage for the most powerful job in the world.

Before he left for London, Romney’s campaign had decided that he shouldn’t be filmed watching his wife’s well-heeled dancing horse compete in the Dressage competition. The best laid plans: Instead it was Mitt himself who came up lame, hobbled and lacerated by his own tripping tongue. 

How could any politician with any modicum of sagacity—let alone someone who’s one election away from the Oval Office—venture abroad and question whether his host country was “ready” for the Olympics? Romney came across as simultaneously a know-nothing and a smug know-it-all—at least about the Olympic Games, which he seems to think he owns and which he has regularly treated like one of those enterprises taken over by Bain ever since he took over the 2002 Winter Games. 

He also seemed not to know the name of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who could be prime minister relatively soon into the next presidential term. At the press conference when the two men met, Romney referred to Miliband as “Mr. Leader”—a title that doesn’t exist in Britain but a convenient refuge if you can’t remember who it is you’re standing next to. The GOP hopeful also didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to volunteer—no one is—that he had just been briefed by the chief of MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service. Such a thing, as they say in London, just isn’t done. 

For his Olympic-level faux pas, his fellow conservatives across the pond peeped rebuke and ridicule on Romney. The current Prime Minister, David Cameron, archly observed that there was a difference between holding the Games in one of the world’s “busiest, most active, bustling cities and the easier” job of holding them out “in the middle of nowhere”—a pointed put-down of Mitt’s role in Salt Lake City a decade of winters ago. London Mayor Boris Johnson poked fun at a “guy named Mitt who wants to know whether we’re ready” and ignited a crowd of 60,00 in Hyde Park to chant: “Yes, we are”—for Romney, a discomforting echo of the 2008 Obama mantra. 

While Rupert Murdoch’s Sun memorably labeled Romney “Mitt the Twit,” it wasn’t just the British press and politicians who scorned his bumbling performance. Karl Rove, who’s assembling hundreds of millions of dollars to elect him president—and who perhaps should go from being “Bush’s brain” to being Romney’s—ruefully said “you have to shake your head” about the way the candidate just stepped into it. The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was blunter: The episode was “unbelievable...beyond human understanding...It’s like a guy in the hundred meter dash. All he has to do is finish, he doesn’t have to win. And instead he tackles the guy in the next lane and gets disqualified.”

Disqualified is the right word because Romney went overseas precisely to show he was qualified to be president. Seldom if ever has any such an effort made someone look so foolish so fast, with so much blowback coming from across the political spectrum. 

Indeed this story of a major figure lacking even minimal sense was so delicious—a case of man bites himself—that you could be tempted to suspect it was a one-off, a sideshow without lasting significance. That was exactly how the Romney campaign thought to spin it. American voters don’t care what foreigners think was the jingoistic response of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a potential Romney running mate. But they do care whether an American president can think on his feet—or thinks before he speaks. 

And Mitt’s London follies were more than a case of political life imitating Saturday Night Live. What he revealed was both his shallowness in foreign policy and the more pervasive flaw of a candidate who reflexively gets things wrong when presented with the unexpected— or sometimes, even on something that should have been entirely anticipated and vetted.

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A gaffe is one thing, but a passage in a book is another. In terms of Romney’s international comprehension and competence, consider these words in his campaign tome No Apology: “England is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn’t make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy.” England? What about Scotland and Wales—which is why the Island nation is called Great Britain. Small roads? Has he ever heard of the motorways—yes, freeways—that stretch the length and breadth of the country outside London? Small houses? This is a childish cliché. And as for exports: How about aerospace, pharmaceuticals, financial services, the creative industries and high tech? (Sir Tim Berners Lee is the inventor of the World Wide Web.) 

How could anyone with presidential ambitions write what Romney did, or let it be ghost written for him? One explanation is that he’s clueless, the other is that he doesn’t care. Either, as Krauthammer might put it, is disqualifying. And Mitt should be relieved that No Apology apparently has no readers in Britain. 

In fact, that book like his overseas junket, typifies the Romney foreign policy. It largely consists of content-less slogans and a disconnected set of opportunistic and false attacks on the President, coupled with an intention to reinstate the Bush neo-conmen who cratered America’s standing in the world as surely as their domestic counterparts collapsed the American economy. Beyond that there is emptiness—and repeated proof that Romney is without basic knowledge and out of his depth. 

Thus one of his advisors recently warned that we need to do more to defend “Czechoslovakia” from the “Soviet Union.” Neither country still exists. Romney himself won’t say himself how long he would stay in Afghanistan, and on the issue of a possible conflict with Iran he said in a Republican primary debate: “You sit down with your attorneys and [they?] tell you what you have to do.” He opposed going into Pakistan to track down terrorists and observed that finding Osama bin Laden wasn’t “worth moving heaven and earth.” After the bin Laden raid—inside Pakistan—he gave credit to the Navy Seals and begrudged the President who had sent them to kill or capture the mastermind of 9-11. 

The list goes on and on. Jake Tapper of ABC News counted a constantly shifting array of Romney positions on U.S. involvement in Libya: Do it sooner; I’m not saying anything; Obama’s doing too much; it’s great Gadhafi’s gone. At one point in his confused peregrinations, Mitt ran through a hallway and jumped on an escalator to duck reporters’ questions.

In foreign policy, Romney can look like Palin in a business suit with a cheat sheet of buzzwords, but hardly any substance at all. She didn’t know where foreign countries were; he doesn’t know what to say when he gets there. And while he may read the briefing books, he evidences none of the judgment, restraint, and the taut and tempered boldness required of a president at junctures of maximum danger. 

That matters profoundly.

Mitt’s golden gaffes in London manifest not only his incapacity abroad, but his lack of sound instinct—of the qualities that are the bedrock of the hardest presidential decisions. Michael Kingsley famously defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth - some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say." And Romney, in his gaffes over the past week and all through his long years of campaigning, has exposed his true self as superficial, cynical—unprepared to respond wisely and well to tests to political leadership. If he fumbled to predictable questions in London, imagine how he would do in the sudden perilous challenges of the presidency. 

He has traveled overseas and played the part of “The Ugly American.” In the novel of that title, the real ugly American was a hero, an unhandsome engineer who actually bothered to understand the Asian nation he was trying to help as it faced a Communist insurgency. But the phrase has come to stand for something else described in the novel—a typology of arrogance and obliviousness that fits Mitt the malaprop: he’s a tightly wound, but conspicuously out-of-touch—a caricature of those Americans the book describes who “go to a foreign country...[and] are loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive; or maybe they’re not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.” 

Whatever the cause, there is reason to think that Romney is not ready on day one—or day three hundred—for the demand of leading America in a complicated and dangerous world. There’s more than a chance that, with his gifts of misjudgment, he would be dangerous in the White House. 

One thing is sure: Romney is dangerous to his own campaign. His handlers will do everything they can to keep him strapped to that message box until the election. They doubtlessly wish they had gone to Ohio or Florida instead of the land of small roads and small houses. But if he had stayed home, who knows what might have emerged from the mouth of this unnatural, animatronic politician if he had stumbled off script? Remember “I like being able to fire people”? 

You see, Mitt can’t help himself—even when he’s supposed to be pre-canned. Go back to that fundraising dinner with Sheldon Adelson and company; oops, I mean breakfast. Romney had scheduled the dinner for Tisha B’AB, a Holy Day when observant Jews fast for 25 hours. At the rescheduled breakfast the morning, he casually let slip an ethnic stereotype. “Jewish culture,” he said, is responsible for Israel’s prosperity and the disparity between the Israeli and Palestinian economies. That is both inaccurate and insensitive. It’s a good thing Romney left the country right afterwards—or he might have said “some of his best friends are...”

In Poland, the Romney team made it three-for-three in botched opportunities overseas when spokesman Rick Gorka—firing back at reporters peppering the candidate with questions about his press-shyness—was caught on camera shouting at reporters: “kiss my ass.” (He later apologized.)

But just wait. When Romney returns from baiting the Russian (not Soviet) bear during his final stop in Poland, he’ll will have a little over 90 days of campaigning left—and he will trip over his tongue again and again.

He’s the prince of verbal pratfalls, overseas and at home. And in a sense, that’s a good thing because the more you see and hear him in this presidential campaign, the more you know he’s just not up to the job.