How gaffe-filled was Mitt Romney's foreign adventure?

Although Mitt Romney's recent trip abroad has been slammed by the British and much of the American press, the Republican presidential candidate may have scored some important political points.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers a speech in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 29, 2012. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

It is probably no surprise that Mitt Romney's press secretary lost his cool on Tuesday following the Republican candidate's visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw.

As reporters hurled questions at Romney about the so-called gaffes during his trip abroad, Romney's press secretary jumped into the fray, telling reporters to "kiss my ass."

"This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect," Rick Gorka said. Asked why Romney has taken just three questions from American reporters during this trip, Gorka told one member of the press entourage to "shove it." 

He apologized later but the damage had been done. If this was a trip designed to show Romney and his Republican brain trust as comfortable on the world stage they didn't exactly come home with their merit badges.

Gorka's outbursts clearly reflected the frustration felt by the Romney team over the coverage of his brief foreign tour — an eight-day, three-country tour that was supposed to bolster Romney's foreign policy credentials and show him as a competent statesman.

The plan was to visit Britain, Israel and Poland, three countries that are often said by conservative critics to have been slighted by the Obama administration.

Portrayed as gaffe-filled affair

But instead of an easy political win, Romney's foreign adventure in the early going was portrayed as a gaffe-filled affair, slammed by the British press and leading British politicians, and even by Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer. Happily piling on, Barack Obama's senior campaign adviser, Robert Gibbs, referred to it as an "embarrassing disaster."

Of course Romney strategist Stuart Stevens rejected that notion, telling reporters that the trip was in fact "a great success, generally."

The reality, of course, is probably somewhere in between.

Romney's first stop in London, was seen as an opportunity for him to reaffirm the so-called special relationship between the U.S. and Britain — a relationship some believe has become increasingly strained under the Obama administration.

The incidents included the minor — like the controversy surrounding the White House return of a bust of Churchill — to the more substantial, like the administration remaining neutral during Britain's recent flare-up with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

While reaffirming that special relationship, Romney was also going to seize on the opening of the London Olympics to remind U.S. voters of his success in running the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Instead, in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, Romney questioned London's readiness for the Games, noting that some things about the preparations were "disconcerting."

"All Romney has to do [was] say nothing," observed Krauthammer, a noted conservative columnist.  "It's like a guy in the 100-metre dash. All he has to do is  finish, he doesn't have to win. And instead, he tackles the guy in the lane next to him and ends up disqualified. "

Romney quickly backtracked on his Olympic remarks. But the unforgiving British press was now on alert for any perceived stumbles.

Romney was criticized for referring to British opposition leader Ed Miliband as Mr. Leader. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

So when the Republican presidential candidate addressed Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour party as "Mr. Leader," the British press pounced. And when Romney acknowledged he had a meeting with the head of MI6, Britain's international spy agency, which was a meeting that was supposed to have been kept under wraps, they pounced again.

Romney was clearly hoping to get back on track in Israel, which is arguably more important to American voters than Britain. This was an opportunity to publicize his pro-Israel stance in the country itself and, at the same time, appeal to Jewish voters back home.

Welcomed by Netanyahu

He largely succeeded, as he was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a personal friend) and President Shimon Peres. In Jerusalem, he gave, by most accounts, a very powerful speech, supporting Israel's right to defend itself against Iran and its nuclear buildup, and declaring Jerusalem the capital.

But his tough-sounding position on Iran, in the end somewhat less tough than what a senior aide had forecasted, did reverberate in other capitals concerned about stability in the Middle East.

Romney pauses next to the Western Wall, in Jerusalem during his trip to Israel. (Dan Bality/Associated Press)

Still, Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre, a private institution based in Israel,  told CBC News that while Iran and the Jerusalem capital issues made the headlines, Romney really didn't deviate that much from current U.S. policy or what has been said in the past.

"It's not so much what Romney said. It's that people in Israel believe that he’s being sincere," Rubin said.

That view was shared by Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, who said  that what he thought most important was Romney's declaration "I love this country, I love America, I love the friendship we have."

"What was striking to me was that in the prepared text those words did not appear," he said. "He either added them in just before delivery or added them while delivering it,  which would suggest that he means them, that they didn't come from some speech writer."

"I would have thought that would get more attention," Abrams said in an interview. "The criticism you get from pro-Israel community is that [Obama] does not seem to have any emotional attachment or feeling for Israel."

The Israeli 'culture' controversy

Still, Romney hit another speed bump when the Associated Press ran a story from a speech he gave at a fundraising event in Israel in which he seemed to suggest that Israeli culture figured prominently in why Israelis are more economically successful than Palestinians.

The remarks angered Palestinian leaders, who called the comments racist. Romney's team complained about the Associated Press story, saying his comments had been mischaracterized, and that in fact he had said similar things about the U.S.-Mexican relationship.

In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Romney denied he was criticizing Palestinian culture.

"I think if it weren't an election year, people wouldn't be paying attention to this remark," Abrams said, noting that the Arab Human Development reports, written by Arab intellectuals, say much of the same thing.

Poland was the last stop for Romney — a pro-West country that has supported the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet relations cooled following the Obama administration's decision to cancel a missile defence agreement with Poland at the outset of Obama's presidency, in what appeared to be an effort to appease Russia.

Romney received support from former Polish President Lech Walesa, in Gdansk, Poland. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

As well, the Polish prime minister recently demanded a stronger apology from the president when he mistakenly used the term "Polish death camps" during a White House ceremony.

Romney made no missteps, nor provoked much controversy.

He also received a boost from former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who wished the Republican candidate "success." Though the current leadership of Solidarity distanced itself from Romney's visit and issued a statement critical of Romney on Monday, saying he was hostile to unions and against labour rights.

In his speech in Warsaw, Romney stayed on script, referring to Poland as "an example and a defender of freedom" and taking a swipe at Russia, where "once-promising advances toward a free and open society have faltered."

The only real gaffe seemed to come from his frustrated press secretary.

In summing up the trip, Stevens, the Romney strategist, made the point that "there is no electoral college here. You're not trying to win the electoral college in England, Israel and Poland," meaning there are no actual presidential votes to be gained by these trips.

That is true enough, but there are of course impressions to be gleaned from these sorties abroad. And while much of what Romney said in his formal remarks was well-received, his off-the-cuff gaffes in London and apparent lack of sympathy for the plight of Palestinians while in Israel seemed to reinforce the perception that he has something of a tin ear on sensitive issues.

With files from The Associated Press