A generation ago, it was the three I's: A presidential challenger's obligatory foreign trip was to Ireland, Italy, and Israel. Mitt Romney's itinerary is Britain, Poland, and Israel.
Not quite the naked ethnic appeal of yore. Each destination suggests a more subtle affinity: Britain, our cultural connectedness with the folks who have been at our side in practically every fight for the last hundred years; Poland, the "new Europe" so unashamedly pro-American; Israel, appealing to most American Jews, but also to passionately sympathetic evangelical Christians.
Unlike Barack Obama, Romney abroad will not be admonishing his country, criticizing his president, or declaring himself a citizen of the world. Indeed, he should say nothing of substance, offer effusive expressions of affection for his hosts — and avoid needless contretemps, like his inexplicably dumb and gratuitous critique of Britain's handling of the Olympics. The whole point is to show appreciation for close allies, something the current president has conspicuously failed to do.
On the contrary, Obama started his presidency by returning to the British the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office. Then came the State Department official who denied the very existence of a U.S.-British special relationship, saying: "There's nothing special about Britain."
Topped off by the slap over the Falkland Islands, an issue the Brits had considered closed since they repelled the Argentine invasion 30 years ago. They were not amused by the administration's studied neutrality, with both a State Department spokesman and the president employing "Malvinas," the politically charged Argentine name, interchangeably with "Falklands" (although the president flubbed it, calling them the "Maldives," an Indian Ocean island chain 8,000 miles away).
As for Poland, it was stunned by Obama's unilateral cancellation of a missile-defense agreement signed with George W. Bush's administration. Having defied vociferous Russian threats to help us defend against Iranian missiles, the Poles expected better treatment than to wake up one morning — on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, no less — to find themselves the victims of Obama's "reset" policy of accommodation with Russia.
And then there is Israel, the most egregious example of Obama's disregard for U.S. allies. He came into office explicitly intent on creating "daylight" between himself and Israel, believing the Arabs would respond by being more accommodating.
The opposite happened. (Surprise!) After Obama insisted on a building freeze in Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority became utterly recalcitrant. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to negotiate. Worse, he tried to undermine the fundamental principle of U.S. Middle East diplomacy, a negotiated two-state solution, by seeking unilateral U.N. recognition.
In Israel, Romney will undoubtedly say nothing new, reiterating his tough talk on Iran. But I suspect he'll let the Israelis know privately that contrary to the conventional wisdom that his hawkishness signals his readiness to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, his real intent is to signal that, unlike Obama, he is committed to permitting Israel to defend itself.
To the Israelis: "If and when you do as you must, we will stand by you." To the Poles: "You can count on the American umbrella. I will never leave you out in the cold." And to the British: "We are grateful for your steadfast solidarity in awful places. The relationship truly is special.
"And one more thing: Still have that bust of Churchill?"