By Robert H. Reid Associated Press
BERLIN — The British were offended, the Palestinians accused him of racism and even in friendlier Poland, Mitt Romney’s union policies drew criticism from the current leaders of the movement that toppled communism.
Romney’s visit to Britain, Israel and Poland was never expected to produce the same media frenzy as then-candidate Barack Obama’s extravagant, eight-country tour of 2008.
Obama received rock star treatment from international media and world leaders as he traveled from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the glittering chancelleries of Europe.
Nevertheless, comparisons were inevitable and much of it was less than favorable to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
“The designated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wanted to demonstrate foreign policy expertise and diplomatic skills with his trip to Britain, Israel and Poland,” the Swiss newspaper Tages-Zeitung said Tuesday. “Today, on the last day of the tour, he must be made to admit that he clearly missed this target.”
Romney supporters insisted that much of the criticism was unfair and overblown, especially in countries of Europe where the political culture tends to be left of contemporary America.
Back in 2008, commentators attributed much of the public adulation that candidate Obama received in Europe to the simple fact that he was not George W. Bush, whose image had sunk because of widespread opposition to the Iraq war.
Likewise, the warm reception Romney received in Poland was due in part to the fact that he is not Barack Obama, whose overtures to Russia and other policies have not gone down well among Poles.
Whatever the differences, the contrast between the two candidates’ foreign tours has been striking.
In 2008, more than 200,000 people turned out in Berlin to hear Obama speak of a world without nuclear weapons and promise to counter climate change.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy lavishly praised “my dear Barack Obama.” David Cameron, then the head of Britain’s opposition Conservative Party, made sure British and American television cameras recorded him with Obama in three separate locations in less than an hour.
Fast forward four years to what Germany’s Spiegel Online news website described as Romney’s “tour of gaffes.”
It all started in London, where Romney described some of the problems facing Olympic organizers at the start of the Games as “disconcerting,” unwelcome comments from a foreigner that unleashed a media firestorm in Britain.
Cameron, now the prime minister, fired back that “it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” though aides insisted the prime minister wasn’t referring to Salt Lake City, where the GOP nominee ran the 2002 Winter Games.
London Mayor Boris Johnson joined in the criticism, firing up a crowd celebrating the arrival of the Olympic torch in the capital’s famed Hyde Park.
“There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready,” Johnson told revelers. “Are we ready? Yes, we are!”
British media drew parallels with Obama’s predecessor.
“The striking comparison here is with George W. Bush,” the London newspaper The Independent fumed. “Even the bumbling, gaffe-prone Dubya appears diplomatically agile next to the supposedly urbane Mr. Romney.”
Although Romney’s reception in Israel was warmer, he nonetheless stirred up a storm by dismissing Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and implying that their culture — and not Israeli military occupation — was responsible for the economic gap between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture,” fumed a top Palestinian official Saeb Erekat. “Isn’t this racism?”
Romney insisted his comments had been misinterpreted. He told Fox News that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy.”
Still his comments drew criticism from China, whose state-run Xinhua News Agency said Romney’s “hawkish remarks” could worsen an already tense Mideast situation.
Things went better for Romney in Poland, where Obama is widely unpopular because of his administration’s efforts to improve relations with Russia — a country many Poles view with deep suspicion.
On the other hand, Romney has branded Russia the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” — language that pleases many Poles and reminds them of Ronald Reagan whom many of them revere for helping to bring down communism.
Ex-President Lech Walesa, former leader of the Solidarity labor movement that helped end Communist rule, has never forgiven Obama for perceived snubs, including the U.S. president’s refusal last year to receive him privately during a presidential visit to Poland.
Walesa effectively endorsed Romney when they met Monday in Gdansk, where the Solidarity movement was born in 1980. The current leaders of the movement, however, distanced themselves from the Romney visit, citing the candidate’s “attacks against trade unions and labor rights.”
That didn’t appear to detract significantly from an overall positive reception, which Romney’s supporters hope will translate into Polish-American votes in swing states.
“Romney has shown that he is well oriented in Poland’s affairs. He said what sounds good to a Polish ear,” said Bartosz Wisniewski, an analyst for Poland’s International Affairs Institute.
Associated Press reporter Monika Scislowska contributed to this report from Warsaw, Poland.