Mitt Romney vows to avoid publicly bashing President Barack Obama during his first overseas trip as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee—but what he will likely say behind closed doors is another matter.
Romney will be in London for the opening of the Olympic Games, then will head to Poland and Israel as he temporarily focuses on global affairs after focusing almost exclusively on the U.S. economy and jobs for months.
Romney and his top political advisers have consciously chosen to focus on domestic issues and largely ignore national security and foreign policy issues, says one GOP source who has advised the campaign.
"This is an economic election," says the GOP source. "Right now, it's all about the economy."
Taking a swing overseas in the dog days of a presidential campaign has become a box modern candidates have to check when taking on an incumbent president.
In public remarks in Europe and Israel, Romney is expected to allude to his broad vision for American foreign policy and its rightful place in the world, Republican sources say. But when he returns to the campaign trail, will that vision become a part of his stump speech?
The amount of focus the Romney camp devotes to foreign policy and national security issues between August and Election Day "will depend on how much weight the political types around Romney put on it," the GOP source says.
Even GOP-leaning national security and foreign policy experts concede the presumptive Republican candidate has yet to lay out a clear vision for how he would act on an international stage. But it's clear Romney has plenty to say about Obama's security and foreign policy performance.
In a Tuesday speech in Nevada before a Veterans of Foreign Wars audience, Romney took more than a few swipes at the president.
"[Under Obama] has our ability to shape world events been enhanced or diminished? Have we gained greater confidence among our allies, and greater respect among our adversaries?" Romney said.
He also suggested Iran's chances of securing a nuclear weapon have increased under Obama, adding the president has "compromised our national security secrets" due to a number of leaks of sensitive operations that the Department of Justice is investigating.
"We haven't seen much in the president's first term that inspires confidence in a second," Romney said.
In conversations with GOP insiders, two themes emerge about what Romney likely will say to British, Polish and Israeli leaders in the safety of private meetings. One is a perception that Washington has sharply and repeatedly criticized its closest allies in some cases, and sold them out in others. Another is, as Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute puts it, "a lack of American leadership around the world."
"The fact is while Europe especially enjoys complaining about American leadership in the world, they also expect it," Pletka says. "There are people in these governments that are very unhappy."
Republicans look at the U.S.-British alliance and see a relationship under Obama that has grown less special since former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair played Doc Holliday to George W. Bush's Wyatt Earp in the post-9/11 posse.
In Poland, Romney likely will seek to reassure leaders that as president, he would be tougher on Russia than Obama, who sought to "re-set" relations. "We now have a Russia that, despite its relative lack of influence, seems able to waylay the Obama administration," Pletka says.
The president's campaign expects Romney to tell Polish leaders that his attempt to reset U.S.-Russian relations essentially amounted to Washington selling out its Eastern European allies.
To preempt such talk, Obama's former defense policy chief, Michele Flournoy, told reporters those nations' ties "stronger than ever" and noted Poland has agreed to host part of a missile defense shield pushed by the Obama White House and opposed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
But, undoubtedly, the most important stop for Romney is Israel.
Obama famously told a group of Israeli-Americans in March that he has "got Israel's back." But it is hard to find a Republican who believes that.
On the same Monday call, Colin Kahl, a former Obama Pentagon official, harshly criticized Romney for last month saying, "You could just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite."
"Doing the opposite," Kahl said, "would mean reversing the Obama administration increase in security assistance to Tel Aviv and removing a missile system the Israelis say have prevented deadly rocket attacks in the Gaza Strip. It also would mean opting against moves like Washington's 2011 efforts to help get Israelis out of their nation's embassy in Egypt as political tensions boiled in the North African country," Kahl told reporters.
When Romney meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "you can expect the Israelis to be very honest," says Pletka, "because I think their depth of unhappiness with U.S. foreign policy is very deep and very serious."
Just what Romney will tell his old Israeli friend remains murky. The presumptive GOP candidate has said he would be more aggressive than Obama in aiding Israel's efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But some national security experts say Romney's vague comments about what he would do about Iran align him closely with Obama's use of tough sanctions and threats of using military force.
What GOP sources say will not happen on Romney's global swing is a repeat of candidate Obama's 2008 globe trotting. During that trip, the then-Democratic presidential candidate spoke in Berlin before tens of thousands of Germans.
"Mitt Romney is not going there to hear thousands and thousands of people applaud how awesome of a candidate he is," Pletka quips. "That was unseemly when Obama did that. Mitt Romney is many things, but he is not unseemly."
However, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs ticked off a list of things Monday that Obama did on his 2008 trips: Meetings with troops and commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq; meetings with leaders in Israel and other key nations; and one-on-one interviews with network and cable news anchors.
At the conclusion of that 2008 jaunt, "people knew where [Obama] stood on all the major issues," Gibbs said, suggesting Romney's trip agenda suggests this week's trip could be "one long photo op [and] fundraiser."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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