What Romney Got Wrong in Israel

The presidential candidate's simplistic narratives about innate greatness fail to explain either Israel's accomplishments or America's challenges.

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Romney waves as he leaves the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City (Reuters)

In presidential races, the gaffes get the headlines, but the prepared texts and advisers are more telling. Mitt Romney's widely reported blunders in his six-day trip to Britain, Israel and Poland dominated press coverage, but the candidate's prepared comments and the aides who advised him were far more disappointing.

At a fundraiser in Jerusalem this week, Romney said that aspects of Israel's culture explained why the average per capita income in Israel was twice that of the Palestinians. Within hours, Palestinian officials called the statement "racist" and accused Romney of ignoring the economic impact of Israeli's military occupation of the West Bank, as well as $3 billion a year in American aid to Israel.

Romney could have dismissed the episode as a misunderstanding. But instead he stood by - and expanded - his argument that culture is why Israelis were wealthier than Palestinians.

"In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy," Romney wrote in an opinion piece published in the National Review on the final day of his trip. "But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?"

He went on to expand his line of thinking to the United States, saying that several aspects of American culture made it "the greatest economic power in the history of the earth." One, though, stands out.

"The American economy is fueled by freedom," Romney wrote. "Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality."

Throughout the trip, Romney used the same tired rhetoric. In Poland, he hailed "economic liberty." in Jerusalem, he said Israel and America "share in "the reward of economic freedom." Throughout the trip, he stuck to a simplistic narrative that America's greatness is unrivaled in human history and one sinister force - and one alone - is destroying it: big government

At the fundraiser where he made the remarks that angered Palestinians, Romney also repeatedly referred to a book written by one of his foreign policy aides titledStart Up Nation, which hailed Israel's fast-growing high-technology industry but gave a cynically selective description of its findings.

The book, in fact, argues that culture is one of several factors that combined to create Israel's high-tech boom. A central force is a government entity: the Israeli army, which conducts research and creates a culture that has fueled entrepreneurship. (Yes, a government entity, apparently, can foster entrepreneurship.) The book says that government funded R&D and research universities are vital as well. And one reviewer warned that Israel's high-tech growth could lead to a bubble if the country does not address its long-term economic challenges.

Beyond his misleading description of the book, Romney ignored rising income inequality in Israel and Poland - a major issue in the American election. Poland has one of the highest income inequality rates in Europe and an astonishing 15-year differential in life expectancy between Warsaw's poorest and wealthiest districts, the Guardian recently reported.

The Solidarity trade union - which Romney lavishly praised in his speech - criticized him for supporting "attacks on trade unions" and refused to meet with Romney. Last year, the union held nationwide demonstrations protesting rising income inequality.

In Israel last September, 450,000 people demonstrated against rising inequality in what was believed to have been the largest protest in the country's history. Critics of Israel's conservative government say its Republican-style laissez-faire policies boosted economic growth but have given a handful of families control of 30 percent of Israel's economy, from banks to supermarkets.

Romney's foreign trip is further proof that, despite the primaries being over, he is not moving to the center. The foreign policy aide who was the driving force behind his trip to Israel - and the author of Start Up Nation -is Dan Senor, a former official in the administration of George W. Bush and best known for cynically downplaying the chaos in Baghdad as spokesman for L. Paul Bremer. (I experienced this firsthand while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

"Under real-world rules, Dan Senor should not be anywhere near Mitt Romney's foreign policy inner circle," Time's Massimo Calabresi wrote this week. "If there is a foreign policy moment in the last 20 years with which an adviser should not be prominently associated, it is the Bremer era in Iraq, during which Rumsfeldian incompetence and willful ignorance produced an era-defining foreign policy failure."

Willful ignorance was on display throughout Romney's trip. Yes, President Obama twists facts as well, and together both candidates are producing what David Brooks correctly called this week the "dullest campaign ever." But Romney's tired rhetoric, omissions and hubris on the world stage were disappointing. He played to the far right, grossly exaggerated his "culture" point and tried to make it a wedge issue in foreign policy.

Like it or not, simplistic narratives about our innate greatness are not answers to the global economic forces battering our nation.

Outside the U.S., American economic power is increasingly viewed as in decline. A June Pew survey of global public opinion found for the first time that more people believe China is the world's leading economic power rather than the United States. In truth, the American economy is still twice the size of China's, but the credibility of China's state-capitalist model is growing.

Would Romney argue that the Chinese government's economic policies have made that country an economic laggard? Would he urge Norway's central bank to hand over management of its $593 billion sovereign wealth fund - one of the best-run in the world - to American bankers? Would he travel to South Korea and tell the government to stop the export subsidies to industry that have given Asia's 14th-largest country its fourth-largest economy?

It is right to believe in free markets, and there is a great deal of evidence of their benefits. But it's naïve and wrong to think that all economic success is attributable to free markets, unfettered capitalism and our exceptional culture. Even before our economy collapsed, that kind of argument got you laughed off the world stage.

We need to look outward, not inward. We need to partner with and learn from foreign countries, not use them as campaign props. And we have to talk honestly, not offer tired platitudes and sly omissions -even if we're running for president.

This post originally appeared at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.