Mitt Romney on Why the Grass is Greener on *This* Side of the (Security) Fence

Oh, my…Governor Romney was supposed to go abroad to assuage any concerns out there about his diplomatic acuity, and did he ever not assuage them.  That’s strange, because the record shows he is a smart man whose leadership brought significant change to a variety of enterprises, often under adverse conditions (with failing domestic companies while CEO of Bain Capital, with the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its very very Democratic Legislature).  But now that I’ve paid him due respect on executive experience I’d like to ask: Why has he proved such a totally tactless diplomat?

He was a CEO of a private-equity firm, meaning he had failing domestic companies at a disadvantage.  He was brought into the 2002 Winter Olympics to get a flagging operation back on track (which he did), which means he had them at a disadvantage.   In winning the 2002 Massachusetts Republican Gubernatorial Primary against Acting Governor Jane Swift, she was still reeling from a volley of criticism over the quality of security at Logan International Airport in Boston (Note: The September 11th hijackers had flown out of Logan), which means he had her at a disadvantage.  Though he ran for Governor in very very Democratic Massachusetts, the Commonwealth hadn’t had a Democratic Governor in 12 years at that point (and apparently, the only Governor it ever had in history before 1991 was Michael Dukakis), and so he had the Democrats at a disadvantage.  Though Governor Romney is now a seasoned and impressive (though mostly-unsuccessful) political campaigner, when you are a candidate you can always fire your campaign staff, and so he has them at a disadvantage.

Verdict: Governor Romney’s preferred executive style is that of the CEO.

A CEO isn’t a statesman; he doesn’t have to be.  Romney is a vastly-improved Presidential candidate this time around, but it looks like earlier misgivings that his executive style too much resembles that of the dictator (however even-tempered of a dictator) have been right on the money.  (Uh, that’s a distracting metaphor to use when Mitt Romney is involved, sorry.)

OK, now onto the gaffe of the week: Speaking to a group of American-Israeli citizens–prospective fundraisers–at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem yesterday, Governor Romney made a comment.  Here it is in all its rambling, naive, and potentially-offensive glory:

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.

“And that exists also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador; Mexico and the United States…

“…And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

Oh, that is good stuff.  No, really, this one warrants rumination.  There are lots of versions of the “culture is destiny” argument, some more-insightful than others.  If you interpret “culture” broadly-enough, you can compare completely modern South Korea abutting fanatically-Communist, starving North Korea.  Comparing Chile and Ecuador–1 of Romney’s other examples–may be a more-subtle and at least less-controversial case for arguing that certain perspectives and social practices better-facilitate development.  I doubt Romney cultivated many future political partners in Mexico, our large and important neighbor to the south, when he contrasted it with what he doubtless believes to be the culture of success of the United States.  He might have compared the American Southwest–part of Mexico until we came along, anyway–with the diminished rump state of Mexico, but any comparison of the United States and Mexico now must take into consideration the fact that the latter experienced a profound improvement in its standard of living and its practice of politics since the mid-1990s due to democratization and free-trade–until 2007, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon decided to clamp down on the drug cartels which, their scruples aside, had at least previously coexisted peacefully with the government and with each other.  Now, as a consequence of the outgoing Conservative President’s efforts to bring Mexico into compliance with United States drug policy, that country remains in the throes of a civil war that has for years been bloodier than Iraq’s, the principal narrative of which appears to be shifting patterns in the direction of wholesale violence as the cartels try to destroy each other to seize new smuggling routes.  Our “Just say ‘No'” drug policy, their economically-unproductive culture?  The 2 are now related.

Of course, I’ve been avoiding the clearer case for this objection.

Much of the West Bank remains under direct Israeli occupation.  (The Gaza Strip is not, but it is controlled by Hamas and like the West Bank it remains under IDF blockade.)  45 years of occupation by the IDF, its various qualified and unqualified defenders aside, cannot simply be shrugged-off as an isolated consequence of Palestinian “culture.”  (This is, however, exactly what Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor argued in an interview on NPR, in a strained attempt to rationalize the Governor’s comments.)

To add insult to injury, some observers pointed out that Romney’s figures for the comparative wealth of the 2 societies were inaccurate and thereby muddied the waters–to wit, this rather-snarky blog entry written for The Economist:

“To make matters worse, Mr Romney got his numbers wrong. Per capita income in Israel is over $31,000; in the Palestinian territories it is closer to $1,500. Those aren’t the kinds of numbers that divide industrious Protestants from happy-go-lucky Catholics. They’re the kind of numbers that divide South Korea from Ghana. You don’t get those kinds of divisions because of cultural differences.”

The Romney campaign’s attempts to “clarify” these remarks revealed nothing so much as the Governor’s need to put more thought into his commentary on international politics.  I have already mentioned Senor’s attempt to shift the discussion to the occupation that Romney completely ignored; we also have the insistence, from the candidate himself, that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture.”  This is a fine example of the sort of equivocation endemic to Presidential campaigns; Romney explicitly attributed Israel’s relative affluence to its culture, and in the same passage compared the GDP per capita of Israel to that of Palestine (underestimating the gulf between the 2 figures in the process).  One cannot ascribe the wealth generated by a society to the virtues of its culture and admit the relative poverty of another society as part of the argument without imputing a lack of those virtues to the latter culture.

Governor Romney certainly deserves criticism for his analysis, but not for the reasons typically suggested.  Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator of the Middle East peace process, called the comments on culture “racist.”  They were not–nor do I think Governor Romney intended to race-bait so much as to ingratiate himself to his American-Israeli audience.  Others criticized Romney’s skill at diplomacy–a point I and the blogger for The Economist have raised.  I think this to be a more-credible concern, but I think both of these objections miss what should be front-and-center: The Republican Presidential candidate saw fit to compare Israeli and Palestinian economic productivity without even mentioning the IDF occupation and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In this space I’m not making an issue of the morality of the occupation; nor am I saying Governor Romney should have used this particular occasion (talking to a group of prospective American-Israeli donors) to take a stand on this issue.  I certainly have an opinion on the subject–specifically, that without the interaction of domineering right-wing special interests within Israel with episodic flare-ups of callous intransigence by past Palestinian political leaders, the Israeli occupation would be over already.  But it’s significant that Governor Romney saw fit to compare these 2 societies without mentioning that 1 of them blockades and restricts the movements of the other, and has laid claim to significant areas of their land for the settlement of its own citizens without agreement or compensation.  Such a basic omission implies that either the Governor is astoundingly-oblivious to the impact that such restrictions on movement inevitably have on the economic opportunities of Palestinians, or that he wanted to signal unqualified approbation and consent to those policies to his audience.

In the former case, this suggests we can expect a President Romney’s foreign and domestic policies to be harmfully-obtuse; in the latter case, it suggests we can expect his foreign policy to be dangerously-irresponsible.  So, the Liberal Ironist asks the reader not to think of Governor Romney as a racist or a poor diplomat but as either a harmfully-naive economist or a poor statesman.

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