While Mitt Romney’s boorish remarks about the Olympics in London were humiliating enough, the comments emanating from him and his campaign in Israel were still more embarrassing – and potentially more damaging, too.
Seeking to consolidate support on the religious far right, both Christian and Jewish, the Republican candidate and his chief foreign policy surrogate confirmed their ideological obedience in the most abject fashion possible. Without articulating a real policy, their statements reflected such complete submission to neoconservative ideology that even the Bush administration appears moderate by contrast. That they would do so within hours of a high-dollar fundraising event in Jerusalem, attended by major right-wing donors such as Sheldon Adelson, added a jarringly mercenary tone to their reckless words.
Dan Senor, the former Bush administration spokesman in Baghdad who now serves as Romney’s senior foreign policy advisor, startled reporters on Sunday when he promised the most hawkish Israelis a free hand to mount a military attack against Iran. “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision,” said Senor during a briefing that preceded Romney’s address in Jerusalem. The predicate for such an attack, according to Senor, would not be Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, but its attainment of the capacity to do so.
When the Senor briefing sparked an instant and negative reaction, the campaign tried to walk it back. But it was Romney himself who suggested — in a speech that skirted violating traditional strictures against criticizing a sitting president while overseas – – that the United States should never adopt any position publicly that might indicate disagreement with Israel.
“We cannot stand silent as those who seek to undermine Israel voice their criticisms,” said Romney, intoning a cliché that could be expected from almost any American politician, Republican or Democrat. But then, in a speech otherwise lacking in substance, he went further: “And we certainly should not join in that criticism. Diplomatic distance in public between our nations emboldens Israel’s adversaries.” In keeping with Republican efforts to exaggerate differences between the Obama administration and the government of Israel, Romney clearly meant this as an attack on the president. He also referred to Jerusalem as “the capital of Israel,” later telling CNN that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city, where the Palestinians also hope to locate their capital, adding “I would only want to do so and to select the timing in accordance with the government of Israel.”
Leaving aside the question of whether most Americans want to encourage yet another war in the Mideast – at the behest of the same figures that sank us into the Iraq quicksand – how does it serve American interests, including our interest in a secure Israel and a settlement of the Palestinian conflict, to subordinate US policy regarding Jerusalem or any other policy matter, to a foreign government?
Until now, no serious candidate of either party has adopted such an absurd position – and certainly no American president has ever done so. No president has regarded the traditional commitment to Israel’s survival as incompatible with criticism of Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians, encouragement of illegal settlements on the West Bank, or promotion of any other obstacle to a final agreement. Quite the reverse, since American presidents and diplomats of all stripes have often judged that the behavior of Israeli governments discouraged progress toward peace, to put it mildly — including Romney’s fellow Republicans.
Delivering a veto over American policy to Israel or any foreign interest would be impermissible under any circumstances, but the notion of a static Mideast policy today make less sense than ever. The era when Israel could claim to be the region’s only democracy is already past, and the revolutionary changes underway from North Africa to the Persian Gulf demand a supple approach not only in Washington but Jerusalem as well.
Nobody expected such flexibility and skill from the robotic Romney, but his programmed opportunism has now led him into a terrible diplomatic cul-de-sac. The summer tour that was supposed to burnish his credentials has only inflamed doubt about his fitness to serve.