Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Mitt Romney Right About the Middle East?

Mitt Romney routinely is accused of being an android, a carefully manufactured candidate, someone unable to express anything he actually believes. But it is becoming increasingly clear that it is when Romney expresses his beliefs that he gets into hot water. Take his comments about the Palestinians, which are creating a new furor.

Much of what Romney said in Israel was neocon boilerplate about Iran, the importance of defending the embattled Jewish state, Iran as our chief bogeyman and so on. But then Romney veered off course. Surrounded by Sheldon Adelson and his chums, Romney announced in Jerusalem that he has been pondering the discrepancy between Israeli economic success and Palestinian woes. Romney mused that he had read two books, one by Jared Diamond, which focuses on natural resources, and the other by David Landes, which focuses on culture. Romney came down firmly on the latter side. At the King David Hotel, Romney said,

If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it's this: Culture makes all the difference. As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.

The Palestinians went into overdrive to pillory Romney. He was being insensitive. According to the Los Angeles Times, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was none too pleased with Romney's foray into economic and political theory:

"Oh, my God, this man needs a lot of education," Erekat said in a telephone interview Monday. "What he said about the culture is racism." The income disparity is due to "Israeli occupation," Erekat added.

Is it? Are the Israelis solely to blame for the plight of the Palestinians? Or is Romney pointing to a larger problem, one that has afflicted the Arab world? It's surely not racist to point out, as Thomas Friedman repeatedly does, that there is something rotten in the Middle East, that kleptocratic tyrannies have held back their populations over the past century, that the Arab world remains far behind the West economically, despite its incredible oil wealth, and that Israel's existence has permitted Arab leaders to use it to deflect attention from their own grievous shortcomings, particularly when it comes to education and social programs. For his part, Landes, who taught economic history at Harvard, was trying to explain why the West had come out so far ahead of the rest—part of his effort was to refocus attention on Max Weber's theory of the Protestant work ethic. Does that ethic also prevail in, of all places, Israel?

Of course, Romney was trying to cozy up to his Jewish donors—though his remark about "providence" and Israel likely is a heartfelt expression of his own Mormon faith. His attempts to look statesmanlike failed. But then again, he's clearly a more interesting person than his detractors are willing to credit. His mistake, again and again, is to stray from the path of neatly packaged statements to ponder intriguing questions.

With everyone from Peggy Noonan to David Brooks complaining about how boring the 2012 election campaign has become, it's hardly surprising that the press would leap on anything that can be perceived as a gaffe. Part of this is Romney's own fault—he's refusing to take questions on much of his trip from the press corps. He would be better off confronting it directly. Then again, he might be tempted to say something provocative, which is why his campaign probably will continue to try to keep him in a cone of silence. But it isn't really working. It seems clear that, in contrast to the latest Newsweek cover branding Romney a wimp, he's anything but.  For all his stiffness, Romney is not politically correct. He may not have a beautiful mind, but it turns out that he likes to mix it up intellectually. What's so bad about that?

Image: Iowapolitics.com