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Global understanding remains foreign to Mitt

IMAGINE it, President Mitt Romney in the driving seat of US foreign policy.

FOREIGN STRATEGY: Mitt Romney's startling observations about foreign policy has caused many observers to question his judgment. Picture: AP
FOREIGN STRATEGY: Mitt Romney's startling observations about foreign policy has caused many observers to question his judgment. Picture: AP

If that's not enough to give sections of the American electorate and any thinking citizens of the world the heebie-jeebies, then I don't know what is.

The US presidential election campaign was not meant to be about foreign policy. It was, most observers assumed, a political battle that would focus primarily on what really mattered to Americans; the economy, immigration, wealth, so-called pocketbook issues and other pressing domestic matters.

By and large that remains the case. But this was before the recent Mitt Hits The Fan headlines in a number of tabloids on either side of the pond highlighting the Romney campaign's unerring gift for political gaffes, not least in the foreign policy arena.

Indeed, so clumsy and glaring have Mr Romney's errors been they have turned the whole election issue of where the Republican nominee sees Washington's future role in the world into what Americans refer to as a "hot-button" topic.

Let's just pause for a moment and consider some of Mr Romney's startling observations about the world and especially the Middle East, a region that never suffers fools gladly and for years has proved to be a tough neighbourhood for American presidents who let their guard down.

First, there was his bizarre comment that Russia is America's "No 1 geopolitical foe". While Vladimir Putin may not be to everyone's liking, Mr Romney's language sets a new standard for what one writer in the respected magazine Foreign Policy called "fantasy counterfactuals".

Elaborating on the theme, the writer recalls a heated exchange between the former US Secretary of State James Baker and late Syrian President Hafez al Assad who wanted the US to force Israel off the Golan Heights.

"Yeah, and if a frog could fly, it wouldn't drag its balls on the ground," was Mr Baker's blunt reply.

At least in that instance Mr Baker's counterfactual had a certain flair and humour whereas much of Mr Romney's observations while equally ludicrous are meant in deadly earnest.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his remarks about the highly sensitive ongoing events in the Arab and Islamic world.

Mr Romney's comment that the Palestinians have "no interest whatsoever" in peace smacks of a line straight from Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's hawkish mindset and reveals the Republican to be tone deaf with regards to the decades-long effort to achieve a just and fair peace for the Palestinians.

Equally, his observation that Iran is run by "crazy people" comes straight from the Beano book of international relations and diplomacy. Yes, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – like Mr Putin – may not be to everyone's liking but Mr Romney's take runs contrary to the views of many top US officials and intelligence specialists.

I'm talking of people like US military Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and President Barack Obama himself.

All of them have made the case that the Iranian regime, far from being "crazy", operates on a cost-benefit analysis based on its interests, and can therefore be dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

Even Meir Dagan, former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, was forced to admit in a recent interview "the regime in Iran is a very rational regime," capable through negotiation of backing down over the current nuclear proliferation crisis. He did, however, stop short of endorsing President Ahmadinejad in the same way.

That fact Mr Romney's foreign policy strategy has all the eerily familiar shoot-from-the-hip hallmarks of that other "master" of foreign affairs, George W Bush, is bad enough. Where it gets really worrying, however, is that also like Mr Bush, Mr Romney's global "understanding" comes through briefings from – in his case – a 40-strong team who advise him.

That Mr Romney is one of the most inexperienced Republican tickets on foreign policy since before the Second World War is obvious enough. That some of his closest advisers are hawks and neo-conservatives puppet masters like Dan Senor and the Bush-appointed former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who advocates bombing Iran, is even more telling.

It's been said Mr Romney sees foreign policy like a businessman, something outlined in his 2010 book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness? How interesting it is that the thrust of the book espouses a similar doctrine to The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the neo-con think-tank that so underpinned the Bush administration's foreign policy.

It's all very well for Mr Romney to talk of shaping foreign policy according to some business model of goals and outcomes, but as the September 11, 2001, attacks clearly showed, the world is only predictable as long as you understand the impersonal forces guiding it.

As the leader of any nation must realise, it is not they that have the power to transform their country's foreign policy. Instead, their country's interests, the structure of the world and the limits of power determine a foreign agenda. Or, as one analyst from the independent US intelligence group Stratfor put it: "The world shapes US foreign policy, the more active the world, the fewer choices presidents have and the smaller those choices are."

As Mr Obama and his presidential predecessors have found out, what a US president wants and what actually happens are very different things.

As Mr Romney's challenge for the presidency reaches its conclusion in November, he will in part be judged by the American people for the way he has responded to recent foreign policy challenges facing the country. The inadequacy of that response to date was aptly caught by yet another Romney-inspired headline the other day: "Mitt Happens."

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