WASHINGTON – The Obama campaign tried on Tuesday to paint presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney as unprepared for the White House by highlighting perceived gaffes in Israel and on other stops of his foreign tour.
“Any candidate running for president has to pass the basic gut check as the commander-in-chief, and this trip cast serious doubt on whether Romney has the ability to handle that critical element of the job,” argued Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East for President Barack Obama, on a conference call with reporters.
Kahl slammed Romney for comments on Jerusalem and the West Bank economy that have angered the Palestinians.
“He went to the most volatile region in the world and failed to choose his words carefully, as he should have,” Kahl charged.
In a foreign policy speech Sunday, Romney referred to Jerusalem as “the capital of Israel.” Kahl said that both Republican and Democratic administrations have seen Jerusalem as a sensitive final-status issue that needs to be addressed through negotiations, not policy declarations.
But Obama did the same thing as Romney when he was himself a candidate, telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2008 that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel.” He also went further by stating the city should never again be divided – statements that the campaign later rolled back – which infuriated the Palestinians at the time.
For the Republican candidate’s part, he also provoked the Palestinians by implying that their culture was to blame for the disparities between economic achievement in Israel and the West Bank.
“It’s up to Governor Romney to argue why those comments would be helpful in advancing the peace process in the Middle East,” Kahl said of the remark.
The Romney campaign said Monday, after the comments were made during a Jerusalem fund-raiser, that the former Massachusetts governor’s words were misunderstood, having been made in reference to a wider discussion about differences between several countries and based on observations from a scholarly work.
The Obama campaign also criticized Romney for taking only three questions while on his trip – Obama did several press availability sessions on his foreign trip during the 2008 campaign – with senior campaign advisor Robert Gibbs quipping that he and Kahl took more questions on Tuesday’s conference call than Romney did during his entire overseas tour.
Romney aides got into a fracas with the American press traveling with the campaign in Poland Tuesday when reporters shouted out questions at a World War II memorial.
Speaking in Warsaw, Romney chided Russia for faltering on its advances to a free society, holding up Poland as an example for the world as a transition from Communism to democracy.
“In the 1980s, when other nations doubted that political tyranny could ever be faced down or overcome, the answer was, ‘Look to Poland,’” Romney said. “And today, as some wonder about the way forward out of economic recession and fiscal crisis, the answer is to ‘Look to Poland’ once again.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “there are parts of the world today where the desire to be free is met with brutal oppression,” Romney said, listing the Moscow-allied state of Belarus, the Syrian leadership, and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. “And in Russia, once-promising advances toward a free and open society have faltered,” he said.
Despite ignoring shouted questions from reporters in Warsaw about his perceived gaffes in London and Jerusalem, Romney gave several network interviews over the course of his six-day trip.
In an exchange on Fox News aired late Monday night, he said there was no indication sanctions were affecting Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, echoing Israel’s perspective.
Romney noted that strong sanctions were having “a significant impact on the economy of Iran” in an appearance on Greta Van Susteren’s On the Record
program. But he continued, “Has that dissuaded them from their nuclear program? I don’t believe so.”
Romney also told Van Susteren, “We recognize that if down the road these sanctions are ineffective, that we have other options, and that it is unacceptable to America and to the world for Iran to become a nuclear nation.”
Van Susteren also asked Romney whether he would stand by Israel if it took matters into its own hands, a sentiment a top Romney aide expressed on Sunday. Romney took a slightly softer line, saying, “I think it suffices to say that Israel has the right to defend itself.”
On the peace process, Romney criticized Palestinian efforts to take unilateral action.
“The Palestinians need to recognize that the course to the two-state solution is not through the United Nations or through the United States or through anyone else, but through a face to face series of negotiations with the Israelis,” he said.
Romney also emphasized that while the US has long been involved in the process, “This is not something that we will impose from America.”
Romney’s stop in Israel also attracted criticism from more than the Obama campaign.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly lambasted Romney – though not by name – for traveling to Israel and “kissing the foot” of the Jewish state. He also reportedly asked why Romney would make concessions “to get some pennies for [his] campaign.”Reuters contributed to this report.