Voice

Too Much Baggage

Mitt Romney needs to fire his foreign-policy team. Yesterday.

For more photos of Romney's travels abroad, click here.

Welcome home, Mitt. It's time to unpack the baggage from your trip. Unfortunately for you, you came home with more than you left with. And the memories you made are not ones you'll be sharing with your friends at the club anytime soon.

While the goof you made in England was low-grade -- a classic kerfuffle over a candidate accidentally being honest in public -- it raised questions about your judgment, or the advice you were getting, or both. Had your trip to Israel gone well, it would quickly have settled into the soufflé of stories that pass for news during the summer silly season.

But the Israel trip was marked by an even bigger error. This one was not a classic "gaffe," the Washington word for a gotcha moment that political hacks try to spin to their advantage almost as hard as regular humans try to ignore it. Rather, it was something deeper, a true foreign-policy blunder that revealed both a deep misunderstanding of a critical issue and a willingness to sacrifice U.S. interests in exchange for political cash.

The statement, a suggestion that Israel had thrived while Palestinians struggled because of the innate superiority of the Israelis, was also something more. It was racist. There are two possibilities here. One is that Romney was given bad advice about what to say by his staff. The other is that he either ignored the advice he got or misunderstood it and was personally responsible for saying the stupid thing he said. (The likelihood of this latter possibility goes up, by the way, when it is noted that the language he used is similar to elements of his memoir in which he muses about the reason nations decline. In other words, he may actually believe the awful, damaging statement he made.)

Not only was the statement manifestly untrue; it showed a really deep misunderstanding of the plight of the Palestinians and, worse, a failure to grasp that the key to peace in that part of the world will be helping the Palestinians tap their extraordinary human resources and flourish economically on their own. The statement immediately produced a backlash from Palestinians, with whom the United States and Israel must work to achieve a lasting settlement. And that it was all done at a fundraiser to pander to big donors -- including Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate who once called the Palestinians an "invented people" and likened AIPAC's support for peace talks to "committing suicide" -- somehow managed to cheapen what was pretty dumb to begin with.

If Romney was following the advice of his staff when he made either his London gaffe or his Israel blunder, he should fire them. If they didn't advise him to say these things, but failed to give him useful advice about what not to say, he should fire them. And even if they did give him smart things to say and useful guidance about what not to say, he should fire them -- because he can't quit and he'd better find a team he actually trusts enough to avoid falling victim to his own bad judgment again.

Of course, the trip did not end in Israel, and to add injury to his prior insults, his spokesperson threw a few choice expletives in the direction of Romney's press corps in Poland. Although this too might have been warranted, and while Rick Gorka is certainly not the first press aide to feel campaign journalists ought to kiss his ass or "shove it," he ought to have kept it to himself. He too should be fired.

Firing the foreign-policy team that advised Romney on this trip is not an extreme recommendation. That team is famously riven by divides -- between neocons and moderates, between Boston and Washington, between political advisors and policy wonks. They're the ones who had him frame U.S.-Russia relations in terms suitable for the height of the Cold War. In fact, on a regular basis, they have been promoting the kind of Tarzan America policies that are a throwback to an era for which no one except defense contractors has any nostalgia.

What's more, the repeated foreign-policy misstatements and the missteps on this trip undermine one of Romney's main selling points. Supposedly, his experience as a chief executive and manager has helped prepare him to run a government better than the "community organizer" commander in chief he regularly attacks. But to date -- between these problems and the mind-boggling mismanagement of his financial disclosure -- there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this is a well-run campaign. Quite the contrary: It's a mess, regularly producing bad headlines and failing to take advantage of the abysmal state of the economy -- a campaign gift that should, on its own, give him a solid lead in the polls right now.

If Romney recognizes the need to quickly get rid of the baggage he picked up on this trip -- and the people who are responsible for the unpleasant memories of his summer vacation -- then he may someday look back on this whole experience as having had some positive consequences. If he does not, he is likely to face further problems in the future.

Campaigns, like presidents, face 3 a.m. phone calls, too. In the weeks ahead, a major overseas development or more than one could demand a quick, thoughtful reaction that will be seen as a measure of Romney's ability to lead. Remember: It was John McCain's stumble after the Lehman crisis, as much as any of his other errors, that irreversibly eroded any edge he may have had. Whether the call comes on Europe's economy, the collapse of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria (or some new atrocity it may commit), a terrorist attack, a problem in the South China Sea, a North Korean provocation, or an incident along the U.S. border with Mexico, the world is volatile enough today that an unprepared campaign is vulnerable to making a fatal error.

This not-so-excellent adventure proved it: Romney's foreign-policy team is not ready for prime time. They're floundering, and with less than 100 days to go in the campaign, the Republican candidate has only a few short weeks to make the changes needed to avoid another series of screw-ups that could cost him the presidency or, worse, set him, us, and the world up for a sequence of much more serious problems were he actually to be elected.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Lessons My Father Taught Me About How to Live on a Dangerous Planet

Remembering a survivor.

My father's father was from Poland. My father's mother was from Hungary. My father was born in Vienna, Austria. A few months after my father's 12th birthday, Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in what is known today as the Anschluss but was also known at the time as the blumenkrieg because of the flowers with which thousands of Austrians greeted the Nazi troops who marched into their country to make it part of a greater German reich. The diplomatic world effectively yawned. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pronounced on the floor of Parliament that the response to the events called for "cool judgment," which meant almost none at all and even less in the way of action.

Eight months later, weeks before my father's bar mitzvah, his synagogue was one of the thousands that were burned, and his father was among the 30,000 Jews arrested on the night of Nov. 9, known as kristallnacht for the broken glass of vandalized shopkeepers' windows. My father, who did not outwardly dwell on his experiences during the Holocaust and the war, sent each of his children and later also his grandchildren notes each year on Nov. 9 to remind them of what happened that night.

During the course of the years that followed, almost three dozen of my father's aunts and uncles and cousins were murdered by the Nazis. One aunt and her family had the particular misfortune of living in the town in Poland that we in the West call Auschwitz. But my dad was fortunate in that his father's brother was living in the United States and had connections and resources sufficient to engineer an escape for my grandparents and my father. The circumstances enabling him to secure entry visas for the family of three have always been clouded in some mystery, but suffice it to say that the response of the United States to these refugees was, as it was to many others less fortunate, hardly welcoming. Getting them in took persuasion and something rather different from luck.

My father arrived in New York after a harrowing escape from Austria and a hungry trek across Italy to the port of Genoa in December 1939. He wore his only pair of long pants on the voyage across but the pants, which were made of wood fibers, shrank terribly when exposed to the spray of the ocean crossing. He noted the Statue of Liberty as they sailed into New York harbor, but just as great an impression was left by the sign towering in the distance, over Brooklyn, I think, that advertised Wrigley's gum.

Within five years, he was an officer in the U.S. army returning to Europe. He fought across Italy with the 88th Infantry Division, the Blue Devils, commanding a battery of 105 mm howitzers. He served briefly in the military administration of a small town near Trieste, Italy. There are rumors of a secret mission too, near the end of the war, when he was somehow involved in American efforts to liberate the Crown of St. Stephen, the national symbol of his mother's country, Hungary. He then went to search for records and remnants of his family and friends, but the Nazis had been brutally efficient and few remained. The world and virtually all the people of his youth had been destroyed.

In the 1950s, he went to college on the G.I. Bill and became a scientist. His response to the ravages to which he had been exposed was to focus on education, and specifically on understanding how people learned. Working with the military, he experimented with using early computers to help support training programs. He became a pioneer in the use of technology in education, joining and ultimately leading the department focused on learning and instructional research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he worked for more than three decades. In the 1960s, he collaborated in a project to help use satellite television to bring education to Gujarat in India. In the 1980s, after the breakup of AT&T, he joined Columbia University to serve as the Cleveland E. Dodge professor of telecommunications and education at Teacher's College. He won the Thorndike Award for his contributions to educational psychology.

He wrote prodigiously. This past year, he was published in a journal in which he had first published an article half a century earlier. It was the longest period between first article and most recent by an author in the history of the publication.

Like many of the great men I have known in my life -- and of course, for me he was the greatest of them -- he translated the formative experiences of his youth into a lifelong dedication to work that at times seemed obsessive. As a boy, I would walk into his study late at night to find him, baroque music playing in the background, wearing a djellaba, a robe from the Maghreb he had somehow come by in his travels and that he often donned to ward off the cold as he wrote into the wee hours. The work paid off. He helped develop our fundamental understanding of the way human beings acquire information. Mathemagenic behavior, he called it, from the Greek meaning "birth of knowledge."

My father's reaction to dislocation, prejudice, war, and genocide was not to give up on human beings or to turn bitter or angry but rather to invest in the idea that the solution to our problems lay in knowledge. He was energized by the promise that new technologies offered in bringing facts and insights -- once available only to elites -- to people everywhere, and thrilled at the idea of using technology to create super-empowered workers. He argued that countries ought to measure what he called their GKP, their Gross Knowledge Product. What he meant was that as important as economic output might be, it was itself dependent on the knowledge produced, stored, and made accessible to the population at large.

This was his answer to the world that had so often tried to snuff out his life in his early years. It wasn't war. It certainly wasn't diplomacy. It was science. In recent years, he remained utterly baffled that we possessed - but did not take real advantage of -- the tools to remake education altogether, to break out of models of instruction that were developed a thousand years ago, to link students anywhere to teachers anywhere, to create new, interactive, national or international curricula, to save the world in the only way possible, through better understanding of what it really is. Efforts to cut educational funding or resist change infuriated him. Waste and cant and the folly of debasing science with superstition and politics were the enemies about which he most often railed during the last years of his life.

My father died early Sunday morning. And though I miss him terribly already, I draw great comfort not just in what a rich life he had but in how well he lived it. We talk too easily of "the Greatest Generation," as if their primary contributions were in fighting a great war or building America into a great superpower. And indeed, there are lessons in the Holocaust that underscore that sometimes force is necessary to stop the spread of evil. But what the best of them have done is work as they could with the tools they had to make wars and errors like those by which the world was nearly undone less likely. What the best of them have revealed was that what makes great nations great is always measured not by how much we spend on or our militaries or the edifices of our states but by what and how we invest in our classrooms and our laboratories and in the minds and futures of our children.

Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images