Mitt Romney’s London visit is a test of his foreign policy acumen

Mocked for his description of Russia as the United States's leading geopolitical foe and criticised for "posturing" over a military attack on Iran, Romney hopes to use his visits to Britain, Israel and Poland during the next week to counter the perception that he has a tenuous grip on foreign affairs.

Convention has it that contenders for the White House do not attack the president while on foreign soil, but President Barack Obama's campaign invited just that when it challenged Romney to use two scheduled speeches to spell out what he would do differently.

"I don't know how you give a major foreign policy speech and not give the policy details," said Robert Gibbs, the former White House spokesperson and now an Obama campaign adviser. "The bar really is whether or not Mitt Romney is finally ready to shed a little light on what appears to be the secrecy of his foreign policy plans."

The Romney campaign said the three countries on the tour itinerary were chosen as "pillars of liberty" and for their strong ties to the US. It said the intent was to demonstrate a resolute stand with places that shared the US's values, a hint at the Republican contender's claim that Obama has let down Washington's friends abroad.

In London, Romney's meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron, his deputy, Nick Clegg, and the opposition Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, will permit him for the first time to project himself as a politician capable of reaching beyond his limited political experience as a state governor.

Romney will also meet the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, a chance to align himself with an economic strategy of deep cuts to public spending.

The Republican contender plans to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, providing an opportunity to remind American voters of his claim to have saved the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Games from meltdown.

His trip to Israel is the most likely to have a political impact back home, not least as Romney attempts to rally conservative Christian evangelical voters who are strong supporters of Israel, but sceptical about his Mormon faith. Romney's team said he was going to "learn and listen".

But the Obama campaign is piling pressure on Romney to clarify his criticisms of the president's approach to Iran's nuclear programme. It has homed in on Romney's claim that Obama is not strong enough in confronting Tehran and too weak in failing to promise unconditional support for Israel if it attacks Iran.

Iran policy
Colin Kahl, a former defence department official in the Obama administration, challenged Romney for failing to explain what he would do that is different to the White House's approach of putting an emphasis on sanctions and diplomacy while saying the use of force remains a final option.

"This isn't the time for anyone to be playing politics with our policy in the region," Kahl said. "If Romney thinks it's time to use military action against Iran and abandon diplomacy this early, I think he owes it to the American people to actually say so."

That may be a hard subject to avoid in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be looking for support on his Iran policy, which is rooted in deep scepticism that sanctions and diplomacy will work. Israel says there is a rapidly shrinking window in which to carry out an effective military attack against Tehran's nuclear facilities.

But there is little evidence of an appetite among most American voters for a conflict with Iran.

Romney has also derided Obama's testy relationship with Netanyahu as endangering Israel's security. He has criticised the president for public differences with the Israeli leader over the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Moral authority
Support for Netanyahu on the settlements and the lack of progress on an agreement with the Palestinians will play well with Christian evangelicals in the US, but it is not likely to do much to enhance Romney's foreign policy credentials more broadly.

Romney's spokesperson, Ryan Williams, said: "In no region of the world is our country's influence any stronger than it was four years ago. President Obama has failed to restore our economy, is weakening our military with devastating defence cuts and has diminished our moral authority."

Netanyahu would prefer to see Romney in the White House. They have known each other since the 1970s when they both worked at the Boston Consulting Group. But it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will risk further alienating Obama with tacit shows of support for Romney without being confident of a Republican victory.

Romney ends his tour in Poland at the invitation of its former president, Lech Walesa, a founder of the Solidarity movement that brought down the country's communist government. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Chris Mcgreal
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