WASHINGTON — At the outset of his recent foreign trip, Mitt Romney committed a gaffe. In answer to a question about the Olympics, he expressed skepticism about London's preparations. The response confounded and agitated Romney supporters because it was such an unforced error. The question invited a simple paean to Olympic spirit and British grit, not the critical analysis of a former Olympic organizer.
Soon that initial stumble was transmuted into a metaphor for everything that followed. The mainstream media decided with near unanimity that the rest of the trip amounted to a gaffe-prone disaster.
Really? The Warsaw leg was a triumph. Romney's speech warmly embraced Poland's post-communist experiment as a stirring example of a nation committed to limited government at home and a close alliance with America abroad, even unto such war zones as Afghanistan and Iraq, at great cost to itself and with little thanks.
Especially little from the Obama administration, which unilaterally canceled a Bush(43)-era missile-defense agreement with Poland to appease Russia. Without any overt criticism of the current president, Romney set out a foreign policy of radically greater appreciation of and fidelity to American allies.
Yet all we hear about Warsaw is the "gaffe": two phrases uttered by an aide, both best described as microscopically rude. At The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a pack of reporters hurled questions of such journalistic sophistication as, "What about your gaffes?" To which Rick Gorka suggested that the reporters kiss his posterior, a rather charming invitation that would have made a superb photo op.
The other offense against human decency was Gorka's correlative directive to "shove it."
The horror! On the eve of the 2004 Democratic Convention, Teresa Heinz Kerry offered precisely that anatomically risky suggestion to an insistent Pittsburgh journalist. Not only did she later express no regret, but Hillary Clinton reacted with: "Good for you, you go girl."
So where's the Romney gaffe? Is what's good for the Heinz not good for the Gorka?
And at his previous stop in Jerusalem, Romney's speech was a masterpiece of nuance and restraint. Without directly criticizing Obama, Romney drew pointed distinctions deftly expressed in the code words and curlicued diction of Middle East diplomacy.
He declared flatly that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. The official Obama position is that Israel's capital is to be determined in negotiations with the Palestinians. On Iran, Romney asserted that Israel has the right to defend itself. Obama says this as boilerplate. Romney made clear he means it — that if Israel has to attack, the U.S. won't flash the red light before nor punish Israel afterward.
What about the alleged gaffe that dominated reporting from Israel? Romney averred that Israeli and Palestinian economic development might be related to culture. A Palestinian Authority spokesman obligingly jumped forth to accuse Romney of racism, among other thought crimes.
The American media bought it whole, despite the fact that Romney's assertion was a direct echo of the U.N. Arab Human Development Report, written by Arab intellectuals and commissioned by the U.N. It unambiguously asserted that "culture and values are the soul of development." And went on to report how existing cultural norms — "including traditional Arab culture and values" — are among the major impediments to Arab economic progress.
The report deplores the rampant corruption, repressive governance and lack of women's (and human) rights as major contributors to backwardness in the Arab world. (In the Palestinian case, it faults Israeli "occupation," but a U.N. document that doesn't blame Israel for every Palestinian sorrow, if not the world's, has yet to be written. Moreover, that excuse doesn't work for today's occupation-free, Palestinian-run Gaza.)
Is there any question about Romney's assertion? PLO/PA corruption is a legend. Palestinians are repelled by it. Why do you think the PA lost the 2006 (and last) free election?
Romney's point about "culture" was to highlight the improbable emergence of Israel from resourceless semi-desert to First World "startup nation," a tribute to its freedom and openness.
Look at how Romney was received. In Israel, its popular prime minister lavished on him a welcome so warm as to be a near-endorsement. In Poland, Romney received an actual endorsement from Lech Walesa, former dissident, former president, Cold War giant, Polish hero. Yet the headlines were "shove it" and "culture."
Scorecard? Romney's trip was a major substantive success: one gaffe (Britain), two triumphs (Israel and Poland) and a fine demonstration of foreign policy fluency and command — wrapped, however, in a media narrative of surpassing triviality.
Charles Krauthammer's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.