Until not long ago, the people of the United Kingdom regarded their government’s handling of the impending Olympic Games with disgust and outrage. (“Asked ‘What do you feel about the Olympics?’ the other day, a random sampling of people here gave answers that included bitter laughter; the words ‘fiasco,’ ‘disaster’ and ‘police state.’”) On the eve of a trip to London, Mitt Romney uttered a far milder version of the same sentiment, telling NBC’s Brian Williams, “The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging.” Now all hell has broken loose, with even Romney’s putative Tory allies sniping at him and the London media in full indignation mode.
The British press is an outrage-generating machine the likes of which we American reporters can only gaze upon with awe. The very best outrage we can gin up comes from Andrew Sullivan — who occupies the ideal pro-Cameron, anti-Romney sweet spot — and Andrew still can’t match the offense-taking theatrics of the British media, expressed in such outlets as the Guardian (“Mitt Romney’s Olympics blunder stuns No 10 and hands gift to Obama”) or the Telegraph itself (“Commentary: if Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care”).
In Romney’s defense, he is accustomed to dealing with an American press corps so used to his gaffes that he can’t get its attention unless he does something like declare that he’s not concerned about the tens of millions of Americans who, almost by definition, are most in need of concern. But this very hypersensitivity was the premise for Romney’s whole trip to London. The chosen message of the trip was supposed to have been a restoration of the “special relationship,” a goal that nestled comfortably into the general right-wing accusation that Obama spits in the faces of our friends even as he comforts our enemies. Romney’s plans to “abandon Mr Obama’s ‘Left-wing’ coolness towards London” was the theme of a story in the conservative Telegraph, which attracted attention for quoting an anonymous Romney adviser suggesting that Obama didn’t understand the “Anglo-Saxon heritage.”
The alleged, but never confirmed, source of this inflammatory quote is Nile Gardiner, who has largely devoted himself to ginning up precisely these sorts of pseudo-controversies against Obama. Here is Gardiner’s own master list of supposed Obama affronts, including such diplomatic crises as the returning of a Winston Churchill statue that was on loan, his anondyne remark that “we don’t have a stronger friend and strong ally than Nicolas Sarkozy,” and sending Gordon Brown a chintzy gift of 25 DVDs. The careful cultivation of these episodes is a large source of the perception that Obama has forsaken our ally — the perception Romney set out to exploit. Now Gardiner has seen his entire body of work of the last three and a half years go up in smoke as Romney commits a diplomatic atrocity that, meager though it may be, dwarfs DVD-gate and the other embers of controversy he has so dutifully fanned.
And Romney, who had been intending to display both his superior handling of the Anglo-American alliance in particular, and a firm grasp of international affairs in general, has instead bungled both goals. As a famous Londoner once wrote, “’tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard.”