With his remarks in Israel, Mitt Romney is consolidating his hold on fringe voters

Romney is behaving as if he's still fighting a Republican primary.

Before he set off for a seven-day trip to Britain, Israel and Poland, Mitt Romney aimed to show voters back home what a real statesman looked like, not someone who "apologises" for American greatness.

Yet within hours of setting foot in London, the campaign for the Republican presidential hopeful was downplaying his overseas tour, saying Americans don't pay much attention to what happens beyond our borders — especially what the foreign press says about Romney.

This is true. We don't pay much attention to international news. We don't even pay much attention to our own news. But when big-deal newsmakers like Romney do something dumb and embarrassing and easy to mock, well, that's when we tend to pay attention.

Of course, I'm talking about Romney's remarks just before the opening of the 2012 Olympics in which he expressed worry that London wasn't up to the job of hosting the winter games. This aroused the various shades of indignation among the British punditocracy, harsh words from Prime Minister David Cameron and — most delicious of all — ridicule from London's theatrical mayor.

"There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready? Yes we are!" Boris Johnson yells at a crowd of 60,000. All that was missing was a soundtrack by Gary Glitter.

Over the course of a day, Romney blew up his own case against President Barack Obama's foreign policy — which was, in brief, that Obama has somehow diminished America's standing abroad, and publicly expressed shame for American military might.

That was already a fairly weak case given the president's record on Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt — and on the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. About the only thing Romney has sunk his teeth into is the Obama administration's "bragging" after the terrorist's death, and frankly, that's weak too — however much he "bragged," only those who already hate Obama would hold that against him.

So whatever credibility Romney had in his case against the president's foreign policy withered away after David Cameron said it's easy to host an Olympics in the middle of nowhere, a dig at Romney's tenure at the 2002 summer games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

London, however, was fun-and-games compared to Israel, and it is there that we probably find Romney's real agenda. Indeed, it's the agenda he's had from the beginning of his White House run — locking in support from the GOP's conservative and radical right wings. 

Here's the typical pattern of American presidential elections. During primaries, candidates appeal to the margins of their parties, but once the general election begins, as it now has, candidates broaden their message to appeal to centrist voters. Obama has been doing that, but Romney, contrary to expectation, hasn't. Sometimes, in fact, is feels like he's still competing in the Republican primary.

A case in point. Earlier this month, Romney spoke to the annual convention of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), our highest-profile civil rights organisation. Other than making the rounds, as politicians do, many wondered why. Depending on the poll, Romney has the support of one or three per cent of African Americans, so he didn't go there to win votes. To the contrary, he ended up pissing people off, this time by saying he'd get rid of "nonessential" programs like "Obamacare".

Using the word "Obamacare" in another setting wouldn't have been controversial. But champions of civil rights know "dog-whistling" when they hear it, and "Obamacare" has quickly become part of the lexicon of white nationalism. This is not to say that Romney is a racist. I don't think he is. But he wasn't speaking to the NAACP. He was talking to that part of the Republican Party — probably working-class white Southerners — that responds well to a white candidate appearing to "stand up" to educated and affluent blacks.

Same thing in Israel. There, Romney said Jerusalem was the true capital of Israel. He also said no American president should publicly disagree with Israel. And later, he said Israeli "culture" is the reason for its prosperity relative to appalling poverty among Palestinians.

Yeah, these are not statements made by a man carving out a place in the middle of the political spectrum. To the contrary, Romney is consolidating his influence over the fringe — to wit, two kinds of outer-wing voter: 1) white evangelical Christians to whom Israel plays a central role in the biblical story of the apocalypse, and 2) ultra-conservative Jews who believe that Israel can do no wrong.

Obama has presided over the deepest economic nadir since the Great Depression, and as the first African-American president, he's the object of various and sundry forms of racism and conspiracism (think: birthers). Romney is hoping to build a coalition among disillusioned mainstream voters as well as energised fringe voters. In another context, Romney would be a lamb to the slaughter, but as it is, most of the polls show him dead-even with the president.

So, yeah, it was fun to watch Romney trip and fall in Britain, but as his spokespeople said, Americans don't pay attention to the foreign press. Hopefully, they will pay attention soon before it's too late.


Mitt Romney during his recent visit to Jerusalem. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.


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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.