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Risk and reward await Romney on foreign trip

BOSTON — An impending overseas trip lasting six days provides Mitt Romney with the opportunity to highlight his foreign policy bonafides, but is also fraught with challenges for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, reflecting the delicate nature of international diplomacy. 

Romney will set off on Wednesday for his first foreign trip since clinching the Republican nomination for president, a high-profile journey meant to highlight his differences with President Barack Obama.  But the Romney campaign says it would leave politics at the water's edge; the Republican candidate would not explicitly criticize Obama on policy while abroad.

Still, the trip, which will take Romney to three steadfast American allies: the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland, is meant to be as much of a learning experience as a political exercise.

"This trip is really an opportunity for the governor to learn and listen," Lanhee Chen, the campaign's policy director told reporters on a conference call this week. "There are a number of different challenges that the world faces today, and its an opportunity for him to visit three countries that have a strong and important relationship with the United States."

Romney will arrive in London on Wednesday for a series of meetings with British officials — including Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as former government officials like Tony Blair.

British leaders are mentioned frequently by Romney on the campaign trail; the Republican is fond of referencing a conversation he claims to have had with one of the former prime ministers, who privately stressed to Romney the importance of American strength on the world stage.

Romney also plans to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games, which are being held in London. Romney helmed the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, and has been a vocal supporter of the Olympic movement since that time. The campaign hopes the stop will highlight Romney's successful tenure as CEO of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, widely seen as one of Romney's strongest personal credentials. The candidate and his wife, Ann, are also expected to attend at least one Olympic event when the games officially open; the Romney family has a personal stake in one of the contests — a horse they own qualified for the American team in the sport of dressage.

From London, Romney will travel to Israel, where he'll meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Romney knows personally from the two men's overlapping tenure at Boston Consulting Group decades ago. Romney will also meet with Palestinian leader Salam Fayyad and will receive a briefing from the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro. Additionally, Romney is expected to give at least one public speech in Jerusalem.

Obama's handling of Israel provides one of the sharpest areas of contrast between Romney and Obama. Romney had said over a year ago that the president threw Israel "under the bus" for his support for certain preconditions to a Middle East peace process.

Romney will conclude his trip with a two day stop in Poland, where the campaign was invited to visit by former president Lech Walesa. Romney will meet with Polish leadership, and tour sites of "historical significance" around the country, according to campaign advisers.

But the trip is fraught with a number of potential challenges and pitfalls for the presumptive GOP nominee. His campaign-trail rhetoric must take a back seat on the international stage, where American policy and rhetoric is more nuanced, and relationships with allies are delicately balanced across a spectrum of national interests.

In England, where Romney is expected to be focused primarily on the Olympics, the candidate may be tested on two issues of significant importance to the British people: Afghanistan, and austerity.

The UK has been one of the most steadfast American partners in Afghanistan since the invasion of the country in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The UK has suffered 422 casualties in the decade since, and continued British involvement has grown unpopular over time. 

Obama's decision to set a timetable to withdraw from Afghanistan prompted sharp criticism from Romney, who has said he finds "disturbing" what he calls a lack of mission clarity in Afghanistan. But the presumptive Republican nominee has yet to detail how exactly he would differ from Obama's policy there, beyond suggesting he would heed military leaders' advice more carefully.

Domestically, Britain's struggle to enact austerity measures could prove thorny for Romney, who  has advocated similar deep and broad spending cuts in the U.S. government spending to the ones sought by Cameron's Conservative government. 

Romney's trip to Israel presents another set of challenges for the Republican, who most strike the balance between its criticism of the president and upsetting a delicate political situation in which the United States maintains a large stake. In addition to claiming the Obama administration has thrown Israel "under the bus," Romney has said the best course of action for the United States may be to "do the opposite" of what Obama has done in three years as president.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration and head of the foreign policy program at the Brookings institution, said that Romney may have an opportunity to gain favor with an "emotional embrace" of Israel, but will likely find little success if he were to criticize Obama's record of security assistance for Israel while in country. (The Romney campaign says that doing that would be highly unlikely.)

"On the one hand, [President Obama has] done everything possible for their security," Indyk explained of the president's hot-and-cold relationship with Israel and her leaders. "But what they really want is his love."

Israelis have been "spoiled," Indyk said in an interview with NBC News, by the last two US presidents, who both "showered affection on Israel," and have taken offense at the fact that Obama has not visited their country as president. But, Indyk argued, on the issues of paramount importance to Israelis — security and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — Obama's record is "impeccable."

While in Israel, Romney may also be pressed to provide more detail on his policy towards Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, which is now plagued by horrific daily violence and teetering on all-out civil war. Romney has suggested that the US take "whatever action we can" to help remove dictator Bashar Assad from power there, but Russia's role in that conflict may prove difficult for Romney to navigate in both Israel and Poland.

Russia is blocking increased international sanctions against Syria, but has joined in the U.S.-led coalition opposing the development of Iran's nuclear program. Indyk said that Israelis aren't keen on antagonizing Russians, since fears of an Iranian nuclear weapon are the most important issue to Israelis at the moment. 

And if any nation knows the challenges of dealing with Russia, a country Romney once referred to as the United States' "number one geopolitical foe," it is Poland, which suffered for decades under the Iron Curtain, and will be Romney's final stop on his foreign trip. While criticism of Russia may not play well in Israel, it may be welcome in Poland, a nation that has been cool towards the Obama administration since the president scrapped plans for a missile defense site in that country in 2009. 

The Obama campaign has been quick to undermine and criticize Romney's planned foreign trip as a pale imitation of then-Sen. Obama's own foreign trip as presumptive Democratic nominee in 2008.

Indeed, the Obama foreign trip included stops in Western Europe and Israel — but also a stop in Jordan, an Arab nation, as well as in both active warzones in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Romney has visited US forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past, and has traveled to the UAE, Jordan and Kuwait in previous trips, his decision to not include any such stop this time has drawn preemptive criticism.

"Obviously there are time constraints on any travel he does, particularly overseas, and we just have to make selections about where we want to focus and factor in countries he has traveled to before and this is a schedule we settled on," Dan Senor, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign told reporters last week.

The Obama team has also tried to paint Romney's trip as a photos-and-fundraising exercise, pointing to substantive policy pronouncements from then-candidate Obama on his own foreign trip, and making note of Romney's reported high-dollar fundraisers in both London and Jerusalem.

The Romney campaign says any new foreign policy specifics will come in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno the day before the trip begins, and highlights the candidate's desire to "listen and learn" on his one foreign trip this campaign cycle.

But the trip is not also without opportunities for the Romney campaign. As a former governor, albeit one with extensive business experience in foreign countries, Romney has little first-hand foreign policy experience. By demonstrating fluency with complex international issues and a deft touch with some of the United States' most important allies, Romney can reassure skeptics he would be a competent commander in chief. 

The Israel trip in particular also holds electoral promise for the Romney campaign.

"It can make a difference," said Indyk, the former ambassador, of a successful Romney trip to Israel. "If Romney convinces enough Jewish voters that he's going to be better than Obama it might help him win places like Florida."

Then there is, as always, the value of political theater. Can Romney look the part of commander-in-chief as he visits, as a private citizen, with top American allies?

"This trip demonstrates Governor Romney's belief in the worth and necessity of standing with our allies and locking arms with our allies, and that indeed is the common theme binding the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland," Chen, Romney's policy director, explained. "Each nation shares our love of liberty as well as the fortitude to defend it."