Was Romney's Russia comment a gaffe?

Mitt Romney apparently described Russia as "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe" on CNN today, while discussing the president's unfortunate hot mic incident. Romney was challenged on the statement by host Wolf Blitzer and a number of commentators are already discussing it as a "gaffe."

Romney stuck by the claim when Blitzer asked if he was really saying that Russia is a greater foe than Iran, China or North Korea: 

Well, I'm saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors.  Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran.  A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.

But when these -- these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when -- when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go -- we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world's worst actors?

It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

While one can certainly argue with the statement, it's not at all inconsistent with Romney's previously stated positions on Russia. This is the same candidate who described the New START treaty as Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake":

New-START gives Russia a massive nuclear weapon advantage over the United States. The treaty ignores tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia outnumbers us by as much as 10 to 1. Obama heralds a reduction in strategic weapons from approximately 2,200 to 1,550 but fails to mention that Russia will retain more than 10,000 nuclear warheads that are categorized as tactical because they are mounted on missiles that cannot reach the United States. But surely they can reach our allies, nations that depend on us for a nuclear umbrella. And who can know how those tactical nuclear warheads might be reconfigured? Astonishingly, while excusing tactical nukes from the treaty, the Obama administration bows to Russia's insistence that conventional weapons mounted on ICBMs are counted under the treaty's warhead and launcher limits.

By all indications, the Obama administration has been badly out-negotiated. Perhaps the president's eagerness for global disarmament led his team to accede to Russia's demands, or perhaps it led to a document that was less than carefully drafted.

Here's his take on the "reset" from an interview with Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin:

He’s under no illusions about Vladi­mir Putin. He is convinced that Putin dreams of “rebuilding the Russian empire.” He says, “That includes annexing populations as they did in Georgia and using gas and oil resources” to throw their weight around in Europe. He maintains that the START treaty was tilted toward Russia. “It has to end,” he says emphatically about “reset.” “We have to show strength.” I ask him about WTO, which has been much in the news as Putin blusters and demands entry into the trade organization. Romney is again definitive. “Letting people into WTO who intend to cheat is obviously a mistake.”

Is the most recent comment an escalation of rhetoric? Absolutely. But it's not really a change in position. (Yes, Romney did once call Iran "the greatest threat the world faces," but that's not quite the same thing as a "geopolitical foe".) Expect more of this line of attack as we move into the general election.


A glum mood on J Street

J Street, the "political home" for pro-Israel, pro-two state solution (read: anti-AIPAC) American Jews, kicked off its third annual conference in Washington on Saturday night. But despite its massive efforts to mobilize behind President Obama, executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami doesn't seem to be terribly satisfied with the commander in chief's track record in a press roundtable:

"We would like to see the president do more, we'd like to see the administration take a more proactive role in outlining the parameters for a resolution of the conflict, and to build an international coalition of supporters beyond the Quartet."

Ben-Ami also invoked Libya and Iran as examples for the White House to follow as it builds consensus for a two-state solution.

"The way the world was brought together around Libya and around the Iran sanctions, that's the kind of mobilization of international support that the administration will need to do if it wants to re-establish American credibility in foreign policy making."

A panel discussion held during the conference on Sunday about the current prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace took on a bleaker tone. According to Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, the current administration is simply exhausted:

"They were serious, but realized that they didn't have the political stomach...They thought they had the will to see it through, but they got exhausted."

Nadav Eyal of Israel's Maariv newspaper added that the president does not appear to be invested in the issue:

"Obama needs to come into this personally, and he has not done that."

Leila Hilal, co-director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, even questioned the viability of the two-state solution itself:

"This is the time to think about new strategies. Two states is a largely hollow and abstract notion, and the Palestinian public has no interest in dead-end talks...Conditions are not ripe, and the U.S. administration cannot force proposals."

For an organization that's supposed to rally support for a peaceful two-state solution, this year's attendees seem fairly pessimistic about the chances of achieving that goal. Ben-Ami may be optimistic that the stars will someday align, but for now J Street's timing is all wrong. 

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images