Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — If Mitt Romney becomes president, he might need a crash course in Diplomacy 101.
He irritated Britons and Palestinians during a summer tour abroad and has declared Russia to be America's No. 1 geopolitical foe. Just last week, the Republican candidate, who plans a foreign policy speech Monday, raised eyebrows in Spain by holding it up as a prime example of government spending run amok.
That left Spaniards confused, and threatened to reinforce Romney's perceived handicap in international affairs, precisely at a time when lingering questions over the Sept. 11 attacks against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, has President Barack Obama on the defensive.
"I don't want to go down the path of Spain," Romney said Wednesday night during the first presidential debate. He argued that government spending under Obama has reached 42 percent of the U.S. economy, a figure comparable with America's NATO ally. "I want to go down the path of growth that puts Americans to work."
The remark was Romney's latest to cause international offense during a campaign that much of the world is closely monitoring.
The sensitivity reflects a wide understanding that Romney could prevail over President Barack Obama and take over as leader of the world's top military, economic and diplomatic power. If Romney becomes commander in chief, he could face a testy beginning with Europe's economic laggards such as Greece, Italy and Spain, whom he has beaten up regularly throughout the campaign.
No one contests that Spain's situation is dire, its economy in deep recession and unemployment hovering around 25 percent. But Spain's level of government spending is actually low by European standards, and significantly less than Germany and Scandinavian countries with far healthier economic prospects. Spain's woes were chiefly caused by the collapse of a property bubble that had fueled more than a decade of booming economic growth.
Spanish reaction to Romney was swift.
"What I see is ignorance of what is reality, but especially of the potential of the Spanish economy," said Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria.
Maria Dolores Cospedal, leader of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party, noted that "Spain is not on fire from all sides like some on the outside have suggested." Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo called it "very unfortunate that other countries should be put up as examples" when the facts are skewed.
The criticism comes at an inopportune time for Romney. Obama has consistently outscored his challenger in polls asking about national security leadership, but the administration is struggling to deal with last month's attack on the consulate. Four Americans died, including the first ambassador killed in the line of duty in more than three decades.
Romney will have a chance to fully articulate his vision of America's role in world affairs when gives his address Monday at the Virginia Military Institute. But the furor in Spain, however minor, instead serves as a reminder of Romney's record of diplomatic stumbles, such as calling Russia — not Iran or China, for example — America's primary global adversary in March.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has since pointed to Romney's comment as justification for Russia's opposition to America's missile defense plans in Europe, saying the statement has "strengthened Russia's positions in talks on this important and sensitive subject."
Then on a July trip to Europe and Israel meant to burnish Romney's foreign policy credentials, the candidate criticized Britain over its preparations for the London Olympic Games. The comment baffled America's closest ally, drawing withering retorts from the British press, the Conservative prime minister and London's right-wing mayor. He also cited a private meeting with Britain's spy service MI6, in a significant breach of protocol.
In Israel, he followed up by declaring Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state, which U.S. administrations have refused to accept for decades given Palestinian claims to the ancient city.
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