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August 7, 2012

Romney's adventures abroad show he hasn't a clue

Thomas Walkom

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The excellent adventures of Mitt Romney make for hilarious reading.

In London, the Republican contender for the U.S. presidency manages to inadvertently insult British Prime Minister David Cameron, a key ally and ideological soulmate.

From there it’s on to Jerusalem, where what should have been a standard I-love-Israel speech ends up throwing an unintentional spanner into the delicate Middle East peace process.

Thence to Warsaw, where Romney — in an address that baffles many of his listeners — insists that struggling, sclerotic, post-Communist Poland is a model of sound economic management, and suggests the United States would do well to copy it.

All of which leaves us benighted non-Americans to ask: What planet is he from?

Romney often gives the impression of being a visitor from another dimension. On TV, his motions are robotic, his eyes empty. His carefully styled hair never moves.

His logical processes, too, follow unusual routes, resulting in actions like his famous car trip from Boston to Lake Huron, with the family dog strapped to the vehicle’s roof.

All of this would be fine if Romney didn’t have a shot at becoming the next U.S. president, the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger. But he does. In fact, he has a very good shot. The U.S. economy remains spectacularly weak. Unemployment is high. Homes are being foreclosed.

And rightly or wrongly, many American voters blame the current occupant of the White House, Barack Obama, for their woes.

All of which means that Romney is not just a joke figure. He is a serious joke figure.

What was alarming about Romney’s foray abroad was his seeming inability to understand the world outside the U.S. It’s one thing to argue academically that a people’s culture can help explain its economic success. Sociologist Max Weber made that point about Protestantism and capitalism long ago.

But it’s another to go into the heart of the Middle Eastern cauldron, as Romney did, and ascribe Israel’s economic success to the superiority of Jewish over Palestinian culture.

A normal person would have understood why such language, uttered in such a place, would be so provocative. Romney did not.

(As New York Times columnist and former Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman has pointed out, Romney’s statement is also not true. Palestinians are notoriously entrepreneurial. Their current economic plight is a function of the Israeli occupation and the political stalemate that created it.)

Romney’s London remarks were even more puzzling. At least he has a chance of gaining votes at home by praising Jewish culture. But he gets nothing from suggesting that Cameron’s Olympics are badly run.

Romney aides now insist that his maladroit comments only prove he’s a straight shooter who says what he thinks.

But as anyone who has listened to a Romney speech will know, he is anything but. He is prolix, circumlocutory and craven, a man who reverses his views on matters like health-care reform or abortion when he finds it politically expedient to do so.

What was so strange about his London remarks was that he didn’t realize it was politically expedient to be polite to foreigners.

Then there was Poland. Ah, Poland. According to Romney it is a beacon of capitalist self-reliance, a country that eschews Obama-style government intervention and, as a result, is going gangbusters.

But as Associated Press later reported in a poker-faced reality check from Warsaw, none of this is true. With its universal medicare and handsome welfare systems, Poland’s government intervenes more in the economy than America’s. The country’s economic growth rate is robust but that’s in part because of subsidies from other European Union nations.

And with an unemployment rate near 13 per cent as well as an economy that suffers from persistent corruption and red tape, it is hardly a model.

If Romney had known he was telling whoppers, his Warsaw speech might have just been an example of crafty politics aimed at Polish-American voters back home. What’s disturbing, however, is that he didn’t seem to know he was spouting fiction. He had no idea.

Thomas Walkom is a news services columnist.

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