Is This Why Romney Thinks Russia Is Geopolitical Foe Number One?

Mitt Romney’s talk may be tough when it comes to the Kremlin, but on his foreign tour, he stepped carefully into two of the places where Moscow’s foreign relations are most important: Poland and Israel.

Romney’s decision to visit the pair of nations sheds some light on why he’s insisting that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Not that he’s right about that unsparing claim.

Poland and Israel both strike the kind of contrast that matters to the more dominant voices on Romney’s foreign policy team. They’re successful free-enterprise zones bumped up against neighboring states whose confluence of repressive government and economic weakness comes, Team Romney would like us to agree, as no surprise. As the candidate puts it:

“In the 1980s, when other nations doubted that political tyranny could ever be faced down or overcome, the answer was, ‘Look to Poland’,” Romney said. “And today, as some wonder about the way forward out of economic recession and fiscal crisis, the answer is to ‘Look to Poland’ once again.”

Political and economic freedom, in other words, have a common source in a shared set of well-cultivated cultural competencies. Romney has calibrated his language to focus around “the choices a society makes,” but that’s a circumspect way of saying that culture — consciously practiced — makes all the difference for prosperity. It’s a distinction Romney likes to use when discussing Israel, because Israel, like Poland, functions for Team Romney as something of a mirror America can hold up to itself. At a time when the Obama administration is leading us away from the cultural roots of prosperity, Romney wants to argue, the example of certain other countries around the world can remind us of what makes America’s position, still, so uniquely well-suited for ensuring that its best days are ahead.

That’s an intriguing flip of the settled script — Obama was supposed to be the one full of praise for foreign regimes, and Republicans were supposed to be the ones more interested in dropping bombs on them. It’s almost as if Romney is toying with presenting himself as more of a peace-and-prosperity candidate than Obama. But then we come to Russia. Thanks to the way Team Romney has chosen to handle things, all the old stereotypes of conservatives trapped in the Cold War have come with it.

Why the outsized hostility? Hasn’t Romney reflected on how miserable Russia could make US foreign policy if only it bothered to try? Hasn’t Romney imagined how awful things could get for Europe, America, and their shared interests if Russia (yet again) experienced real civil conflict?

Perhaps. But perhaps Team Romney has been paying attention to Israel’s new energy future — and the way it changes the geopolitical playing field for Russia. Controlling a newly-discovered supply of vast reserves, Israel could relieve Europe of its dependence on Russian gas. But Israel is strengthening ties with Russia — particularly on energy: “following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprisingly cordial visit last week,” notes Walter Russell Mead, “Gazprom and Israel have announced plans to cooperate on gas extraction.”

The new Israeli-Russian agreement is part of a conscious strategy by the Israeli government to use its nascent energy wealth to improve its embattled political position. [...]

Even at this very early stage, the impact of Israel’s energy wealth is dramatic. On President Putin’s visit to Jerusalem, he donned a kippah and went to pray at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple. As one press report has it, at the close of his visit, Putin turned to one of the Russian Jews present and said

“I came here to pray that the Temple should be rebuilt, and I wish that your prayers will be fulfilled.”

Putin had more honeyed words for his Israeli hosts. Touring the Wall, he said “Here, we see how the Jewish past is etched into the stones of Jerusalem.” This is not quite a formal recognition of Israeli claims to the Old City, but it is much more than Israelis usually hear.

That’s not music to Mitt Romney’s ears. In addition to a nasty realpolitik complication, Putin’s approach to Israel threatens to muddle the cultural message that Romney wants to convey to American voters by way of international relations. If Israel, like Poland, is such a paragon of the culture of durable prosperity, then why would it be cozying up to Russia, the paragon of political and economic backwardness?

That’s a question Mitt Romney doesn’t want to answer. He doesn’t even want to hear it asked. Odds are, that’s got more than a little to do with his campaign’s pointed animosity for the Russian bear.