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Romney's biggest challenge in US prez race: Foreign policy

By Steven R. Hurst/Associated Press

Washington: Republican challenger Mitt Romney gained ground on President Barack Obama in their debate over the US economy last week and will be trying to diminish the incumbent's strength in foreign policy with a speech Monday that will draw heavy attention abroad after a series of stumbles on issues that signal Romney would vastly overhaul American relations with an increasingly interdependent world.

With the presidential race having grown tighter after a strong Romney performance in the first presidential debate last week, the Republican challenger is now hoping he can narrow Obama's commanding lead in the polls as the candidate best equipped to cope with global upheavals and keep the United States safe from the terrorist threat that was magnified by the 11 Sept, 2001 attacks on American soil.

Obama has been at pains to improve the US image abroad, one that was badly tarnished by the administration of former President George W Bush. American standing, particularly in the Middle East, suffered considerable damage over the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Romney has an uphill climb on that front, not so much among his supporters among US voters, who are paying little attention to global affairs in this election, but among countries around the world — both friends and adversaries — who have been stung by the candidate's ill-chosen remarks. Watching closely as well will be some independent voters who may be concerned by the fact that Romney has surrounded himself with a coterie of foreign policy advisers that is made up of many who played critical roles in the neoconservative path taken by former President George W Bush.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney in this file photo. AP

Romney finds himself in a bit of a hole after having irritated Britons and Palestinians during a summer tour abroad. What's more, he has declared Russia to be America's No 1 geopolitical foe. Just last week, the Republican candidate 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 11 September attacks against the US 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 US 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.

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.

US voters and world leaders also will listen for Romney's ideas about preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon. He has declared Tehran would never have such a weapon of mass destruction under his leadership and that it would under a second Obama term. But his policy prescription on the Iran front shows virtually no difference from the path that Obama has followed. And the president, too, insists that the US will never allow the Islamic Republic to achieve nuclear weapons status.

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, 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 Republican and Democratic US administrations have refused to accept for decades given Palestinian claims to the ancient city.

At a gathering of mostly American Jewish donors, Romney implied that Israel was more advanced than the Palestinians because of cultural superiority. The comment drew a charge of racism from the Palestinians' chief peace negotiator, with whom the US has been working to reach a two-state peace deal with Israel and counter the threat posed by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rejects Israel's existence.

Obama, too, has made mistakes. He was forced to apologize to Poland's president in June after using the expression "Polish death camp" in reference to an extermination center operated by Nazi Germany on Polish soil during World War II.

By singling out Spain, Romney ruffled feathers in a country he will probably need to call on for assistance if he becomes president. Spain has almost 1,500 troops in Afghanistan. It contributed fighter jets, refueling planes and naval vessels to the US-led NATO mission that ousted Libya's Moammar Gadhafi from power.

Romney may also feel compelled to talk about America's decade-long involvement in Afghanistan. Obama has promised remove American fighters and to turnthe conflict over to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. While Romney has spoken of making that a goal, he has not locked himself into that date, saying it would depend on the advice of US military commanders and the conditions on the ground in the war-scared nation.

The world also will be listening carefully for what Romney has to say about the bloody civil war in Syria and fears and an eruption of cross-border shelling between its forces and the Turkish military along their shared frontier. Turkey has given refuge to thousands of Syrians who have fled north across the border to escape the savagery of the fighting in their homeland. Despite heavy pressure from some at home and many in the region, Obama has been leery of US involvement in that conflict, the latest upheaval in the so-called Arab spring that has seen popular revolts that overthrew dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

AP