By Willis Sparks
Before the Republican National Convention opens the 2012 presidential campaign season on August 27 and returns the country's focus to its domestic hopes and fears, Mitt Romney is headed abroad to try to build some credibility on foreign policy. Having focused his campaign almost exclusively on the fragile U.S. economy, Romney wants to narrow Obama's polling advantage on foreign policy questions and offer an image of himself as "leader of the free world." The most obvious way to accomplish this is to stand alongside key U.S. allies facing traditional U.S. foes. Romney will make stops along the way in Britain, Israel, and Poland.
The visit to London is a reaffirmation of American foreign policy tradition and a chance to place Romney inside the "special relationship." With his appearance at the London Olympics, it's also an opportunity to remind voters of the leadership Romney brought to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games -- the least controversial line on his resume.
The stop in Jerusalem underlines another special relationship -- and reminds voters that Obama has yet to visit Israel as president. It's certain to produce warm photos of Romney with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, old friends who met while working together at Boston Consulting Group in 1976. The images will offer a stark contrast with the frigidly formal shots we've seen following Netanyahu's strained meetings with Obama. Romney will promise that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon on his watch -- and (at least) imply that a nuclear Iran is inevitable if Obama is re-elected.
And Poland? A Pew poll released in June found that only 50 percent of Poles express confidence in Obama. Compare that with 80 percent in Britain, 86 percent in France and 87 percent in Germany. In some cases, this is a legacy of the preference among some Warsaw Pact countries for Republican presidents, but it's also a function of some notable Obama mistakes.
Obama trod on Poland's diplomatic sensitivities in May when he referred to Nazi concentration camps located in Poland as "Polish death camps" during a ceremony to bestow America's highest civilian honor on a Polish resistance fighter. Expect Romney to honor the Polish victims of Nazi atrocities.
And don't forget Obama's live mic gaffe with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, the one where he asked outgoing president Medvedev to ask incoming president Putin for "space" in exchange for "flexibility" on the question of U.S. missile defenses scheduled to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. Romney hopes his visit to Poland, at the invitation of former Polish president and anti-Communist icon Lech Walesa, will help him make the case that only he can forcefully meet threats from Russia, which he has (oddly) labeled America's "no. 1 geopolitical foe," carrying on in the tradition of uncompromising Cold Warriors like Ronald Reagan.
Governor Romney can't match the ecstatic reception candidate Obama received in Berlin in 2008. Nor can he share credit for killing Osama bin Laden or ending the unpopular war in Iraq, Obama's signature foreign policy achievements.
But he can remind voters that Republican presidents like to draw clear lines between America's friends and foes -- and that while Obama remains remarkably popular in much of the world, at least a few U.S. allies are probably hoping for a Romney win.
Willis Sparks is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Global Macro and United States practices.
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