Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Classic presidential foreign policy campaign gaffes.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

As much as we may love them on one level, presidential campaigns are awful enterprises. Candidates from both parties subject themselves to a seemingly endless series of bad chicken dinners at Holiday Inns, trudge through hundreds of rallies in rain and shine, and embrace a travel schedule that looks as if it was set by the devil himself. Nowadays, American presidential elections look less and less like a matter of informed choice than a bizarre offshoot of some Japanese game show designed to torture its contestants.

It is in that light, and with some sympathy, that we consider the six most import foreign-policy gaffes of the modern presidential era.


George Romney had a great deal to recommend him as a presidential candidate: handsome, a successful business executive, and a popular former governor. Yet, at the end of a long day of campaigning in August 1967, Romney irretrievably sank his presidential campaign when he tried to explain to Lou Gordon of WKBD-TV in Detroit why he had initially supported the war in Vietnam only later to oppose it. "When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get," said Romney of the hard sell that American generals had given him during a 1965 trip to that country. Romney argued that the war was a tragedy, and that it was no longer necessary for the United States "to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia."  In hindsight, Romney was both right about the war and the tendency of American generals to wildly inflate their purported successes on the ground. It mattered not, the word "brainwashing" was so loaded that Romney was savaged by opponents and ridiculed by comedians. Sen. Eugene McCarthy got off perhaps the sharpest barb, saying that in Romney’s case a brainwashing was not necessary, "a light rinse would have been sufficient."

Democrat wars

In October 1976, Bob Dole and Walter Mondale met at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas, for the first ever vice-presidential candidate debate. Dole, who had worked hard to ease a public reputation for mean-spiritedness, saw his efforts vanish in the space of a single response from his podium. "I figured it up the other day," Dole said. "If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit." The notion that a politician would somehow declare World War II as a Democratic or Republican war shocked the sensibility of moderate voters. Liberal journalist Mary McGrory called it "a ghastly and pathetic moment, which made the thought of Robert Dole in the Oval Office as unthinkable for many Americans as it plainly is to him."

There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe

Apparently 1976 was a good year for the foreign-policy blunders. During the presidential debate between President Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter, Max Frankel of the New York Times asked Ford about the Helsinki Agreement and the Soviet Union. In defending the pact, Ford proclaimed: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Frankel, in obvious disbelief, asked for clarification, "Did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it’s a communist zone?" Ford stubbornly kept digging, "I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union." Backstage, reporter Jack Germond watched as Stuart Spencer, a senior strategist on the Ford campaign, turned to Ford’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and asked, "Don’t the Soviets have troops in Poland?" Scowcroft’s grim-faced reply: "Four divisions."

"I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

John Kerry later called it "one of those inarticulate moments," but his remark at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, took on a life of its own. Indeed, "I was for it before I was against it" has penetrated the public consciousness and become the go-to quote for signifying flip-floppery on the campaign trail. Most people don’t even remember what Kerry was talking about in the first place (it was his vote against an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for military spending in Afghanistan and Iraq). The comment was particularly devastating because it fed the meme driven by Republicans that Kerry was too soft and indecisive to be trusted to lead the global war on terror.

I can see Russia from my house

This is a complicated one, in that Sarah Palin never actually uttered the phrase that most identify as her most famous quote. When Palin was asked by Charlie Gibson of ABC if she had any particular insights from Alaska being so close to Russia, Palin replied, "They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska." Unfortunately for Palin, two days later, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler delivered a devastating piece of satire as they mimicked Palin and Hillary Clinton offering a joint message. When Fey-as-Palin chirped, "And I can see Russia from my house" in the skit, it quickly became cemented in the collective public imagination. And, like the previous Kerry quote, "I can see Russia from my house" has become convenient short-hand. If Kerry came to symbolize the flip-flop, Palin came to embody an aggressive no-nothingism when it came to foreign policy.

Sympathize with those who waged the attacks

Mitt Romney has a great deal to recommend him as a presidential candidate: handsome, a successful business executive, and a popular former governor (sound familiar?). But on Sept. 11, 2012, Romney — after declaring that 9/11 should be a day free of political attacks — rushed to accuse President Obama of sympathizing with forces attacking the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In doing so, Romney secured the only inter-generational spot on this list. Romney’s statement: "It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." The only problem: Romney not only badly mangled the facts and assailed the administration for statements issued before, not after, the attacks, his comments were so baldly partisan and opportunistic that large numbers of Republicans also recoiled. Had Romney merely held his fire while the press dug out the missed signals and poor security procedures that preceded the Benghazi attack, he might have gotten more traction.

The adage has always been that foreign policy doesn’t win elections but it can surely lose them. But looking back, more often than not it wasn’t policy that landed candidates in hot water, it was a short stumble upon which their opponents pounced. For all the reams of briefing books and expert advisers waiting in the wings, the real pressure is on the candidate who knows that a single twist of the tongue can end a lifetime’s aspiration.

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