Jan Weatherhead in Washington: Mitt Romney, the US Republican presidential candidate, is in Israel. This has to be the easiest part of his effort to smarten up his foreign policy credentials. But however many times he bows his head at the Holocaust Memorial and gives a thumbs up for an attack on Iran, will foreign policy buy Mitt a four year tenancy on the White House?
First things first: Romney is no innocent in US-Israeli relationships. What many do not know is that Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are old acquaintances.
Back in the 1970s they both worked for the business Boston Consulting Group. There are those in Romney’s campaign team who would like to describe Mitt and Bibi as close friends. They were never that.
Most may tie this trip into the US election where the candidates need the so called Jewish Lobby vote. Maybe. But think also that it works both sides of the street.
A cynical claim of Jewish friendship does not assure an electorate only too aware of the shallowness of a candidate’s claims. Moreover, it is the Evangelical Christian political union that often votes and lobbies heavily on Jewish promoted issues. So a loud Shalom! on this Israel trip may not be the vote-puller some Romney team players think.
Romney and Netanyahu understand this perfectly. In Bibi Netanyahu’s case, here is a man who is used to being used by American political agenda lobbyists. He has never, nor will he ever, back a presidential candidate because that’s dummy’s option. If the wrong man wins you’re stuffed. If the right man wins you’re forever remembered as a supporter. When you’re trying to get $billion renewals on aid and support for diplomatic, even military, action on your homeland borders an Israeli PM doesn’t want to be badged as a For or Against foreign leader.
However, there is one very current regional policy programme that Netanyahu champions and he needs to corner any presidential candidate into supporting and thus far (and not unexpectedly) he has Romney on side. That subject is Iran.
Rewind to Romney’s fact-free speech in Reno, Nevada when he said that an Iran with nuclear warheads was one of the greatest dangers facing the world. It was a safe speech. Not many of the close on 200 members of the United Nations would disagree and in case they missed it, then Romney tried it again in Israel with this key line:
“Make no mistake: the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way. My message to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away; and neither will my country.”
Netanyahu wanted to hear just that. His reply said as much.
“I have to say that I heard some of your remarks and you said that the greatest danger facing Israel is the Ayatollah regime possessing nuclear weapons capabilities. Mitt, I couldn’t agree with you more. And I think it’s important to do everything in our power to prevent the Ayatollah from possessing that capability.”
And what would the last bit mean when Netanyahu said the doing everything in OUR power? Our means WE – collectively. This is a barely encoded message to Romney and the present White House incumbent that America must support any action that Israel encourages including bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities.
If we think that’s crazy stuff and nothing more than something that we were expected to hear when Romney arrived, then maybe we should ask why President Obama just happened to announce at the same time that America’s new 30,000lb crater buster bomb (designed to blow to smithereens deep down nuclear programme bunkers in Iran) is now ready for operational use.
In other words, Romney can posture all he likes. He will observe the US election convention not to bad mouth the President while abroad. Yet he will not lose the opportunity to portray Obama as soft on Iran as the world’s greatest threat. Obama has just delivered a 30,000lb high explosive response. No one gets soft on Iran.
Whatever cynics may think of easy to forget foreign policy statements when a politician is on tour, there has to be a single point to always remember about these affairs: Romney is making just a three nation tour – the UK, Poland and Israel. Whatever else he does between now and the November vote, Romney will be a good first impression candidate. He will not be untouched by the very realpolitik of London, Poland and Israel. Those three countries can represent fifty per cent of country-viewed world issues. If Romney had managed to get to the other three countries – Russia, China and South Africa or maybe Nigeria – then his instant global policy education would be enough to get into any final television debate.
The biggest impression will be his short stopover in Israel. This is not simply about votes whatever Romney’s team think. No one comes away from Israel without an everlasting impression of the size of the Iranian problem and above all the determination of a nation that has been on a war-footing since its inception in 1948 to do something about if no other will. That no other is the President of the United States – whoever he happens to be.
Romney now understands more than ever what Netanyahu knew forty years ago when they were both at Boston Consulting. Everyone faces a point when talking is not enough. If Romney ever makes it to the Oval Office then he’ll take with him that mental message of the past 48 hours. If it comes, such a moment will define the way ahead for most of the world for the rest of the century. So, we don’t have to listen to Romney in Israel but we do have to think about what it may mean in the longer term.