After last weekend's widely publicized, gaffe-filled trip to London, Mitt Romney caused another foreign policy controversy in Jerusalem with his suggestion that "culture" was the reason that Israel is more prosperous than the Palestinian Territories -- not to mention Ecuador -- a number of prominent scholars on economic growth including Jared Diamond and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson took to the op-ed pages to refute his argument in what Foreign Policy's Dan Drezner called "every social scientist's worst nightmare. Romney defended the remarks in a blog post for the National Review, writing that "a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law" has created conditions that have "enabled innovators and entrepreneurs to make the desert bloom. In the face of improbable odds, Israel today is a world leader in fields ranging from medicine to information technology."
Romney also had praise for the Israeli healthcare system, which, as it happens, is an example of the very kind of government-directed efforts to control costs that the governor has criticized in the United States.
Romney's rocky foreign trip was capped off with a stop in Poland were, in response to reporters peppering the candidates with questions about his "gaffes" at a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, campaign spokesman Rick Gorka responded with the now immortal line: "Kiss my ass, this is a holy site for the Polish people."
Spotlight on Senor
Romney's comments in the Middle East have focused attention on his senior foreign policy advisor Daniel Senor. Senor, a former Council on Foreign Relations fellow and former spokesman for the U.S. government in Iraq, has been described as Romney's "key emissary to Israel's intelligentsia." Michael Shear of the New York Times wrote this week that "In Mr. Senor, Mr. Romney turned to an advocate of neoconservative thinking that has sought to push presidents to the right for years on Middle East policy."
Romney's comments on Israel's business culture were likely influenced by Senor's 2009 book on the topic, Start-Up Nation. Though as noted on Passport yesterday, the book focused less on Israel's democracy than Israelis' informality and tolerance for failure.
Counterintuitive column of the week
Breaking from the overwhelming media narrative of the Romney trip abroad, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer described it as a "major substantive success." He wrote: "The Warsaw leg was a triumph. Romney's speech warmly embraced Poland's post-communist experiment as a stirring example of a nation committed to limited government at home and a close alliance with America abroad, even unto such godforsaken war zones as Afghanistan and Iraq, at great cost to itself and with little thanks."
Romney himself has also expressed exasperation with the media coverage of the trip, telling Carl Cameron of Fox News that reporters are more interested "in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran."
Where's the beef?
One possible reason the media may be focusing on trivialities and gaffes rather than substantive differences between the candidates is that those differences can be somewhat hard to identify. As the New York Times' Peter Baker wrote last weekend "once the incendiary flourishes are stripped away, the actual foreign policy differences between the two seem more a matter of degree and tone than the articulation of a profound debate about the course of America in the world today." Both favor drawing down forces in Afghanistan.... Even in areas where Mr. Romney has been most critical, like Israel, Russia and China, it is not entirely clear what he would do differently."
On FP's Shadow Government blog Phil Levy counters that substantive foreign policy differences between presidents are always difficult to detect and that for that matter, Obama and George W. Bush don't look that different when you strip away the rhetoric.
The resignation of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan this week was another blow to the faltering international efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria. Before resigning, Annan blamed a lack of concerted international pressure for his inability to make headway in Damascus. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took the opportunity to blast Russia and China for failing to support "meaningful [Security Council] resolutions against Assad that would have held Assad accountable for his failure to abide by his commitments under the Annan plan."
With action at the United Nations stalled, some within the administration are reportedly now pushing for Washington to take a more active role in supporting the anti-Assad rebels. The administration has set aside $25 million in "non-lethal" aid for the rebel forces.
Meanwhile, prominent Romney campaign advisors have come out in favor of providing direct aid -- including arms -- to the rebel forces.
The latest from FP:
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson on why Romney is misreading economic history.
Benjamin Weinthal on how Obama lost Poland.
Kevin Baron reports on Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's own trip to Israel.
Oren Kessler on the strange love affair between Mormons and Israel.
Peter Feaver on why Romney's trip won't make good attack ad fodder.
Josh Rogin reports that GOP senators are having trouble articulating Romney's qualifications to be commander-in-chief.
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