Romney heads overseas to ‘listen and learn,’ but will trip highlight lack of details?

LONDON—Mitt Romney has built his 2012 campaign almost entirely around his criticism of President Barack Obama's handling of the economy. But this week, he'll seek to add another dimension to the case for why voters should elect him this fall, kicking off a seven-day overseas trip that aims to prove he's capable of handling international affairs.

Romney is scheduled to arrive in London on Wednesday on the first leg of a three-country tour that his advisers are billing as an opportunity for the presumptive Republican nominee to "learn and listen" to close allies of the United States. On Saturday, he'll travel to Israel, before wrapping up his journey in Poland next week.

The trip offers a rare chance for Romney to exhibit his foreign policy credentials, which generally have been considered a weak spot on his resume. He'll also attend the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics on Friday. The hope is that his appearance will remind voters of his turnaround of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, games that were mired in scandal and a financial crisis before Romney came along.

But Romney's overseas swing isn't without potential risks. His tour will likely be compared to the foreign trip Obama took during the 2008 campaign where he visited several countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. In Germany, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to hear the then-Democratic nominee speak at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate—a reception that Romney is unlikely to get on his current trip.

Romney aides have sought to distance their candidate's visit from Obama's tour in 2008. At the same time, they have lowered expectations about what exactly Romney will do on his overseas jaunt—a move that could potentially backfire since the presumptive Republican nominee has been criticized for not offering clearer details about how his policies would differ from Obama's.

In a conference call with reporters last week, Romney's policy director, Lanhee Chen, insisted the candidate views his trip as a chance to meet face-to-face with close U.S. allies, emphasizing Romney's argument that the U.S. should be "locking arms" with those friends and listening to their concerns.

"This trip is really an opportunity for the governor to learn and listen," Chen said. "There are a number of different challenges that the world faces today, and it's an opportunity for him to visit three countries that have a strong and important relationship with the United States."

The three countries Romney will visit are "pillars of liberty and fought through periods where liberty was under siege," Chen told reporters. The candidate's trip, he said, will allow the campaign to "demonstrate a clear and resolute stand with nations that share our values and possess the fortitude to defend those values in the name of a more peaceful world."

[Get more updates from Romney's overseas trip by following @hollybdc on Twitter]

Chen said Romney would use the trip to emphasize foreign policy positions he's already staked out, rather than offer new ideas—a move that the Obama campaign already has criticized, calling on Romney to offer more than just "sound bites" of what he thinks about foreign policy issues. But the Romney campaign has signaled no change in its plans for the trip.

"We are not seeing this as an opportunity to make new policy," Chen told reporters. "We're not seeing this as an opportunity to make new policy pronouncements."

Yet Romney seemed to change the stakes of his trip in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev., on Tuesday. While Romney said he would refrain from criticizing Obama on foreign soil, his speech trashed Obama on virtually every major foreign policy front, including the Middle East, Afghanistan, Russia and Syria—and it's hard to believe Romney won't be pressed on that criticism while overseas.

On Tuesday, Romney suggested Obama's decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 was politically motivated—even though he also told the VFW he would work on behalf of that same timetable, as long as commanders on the ground agreed it was the right thing to do.

Romney has been criticized for not offering more details about how he would handle Afghanistan differently than Obama—a subject that is sure to come up in Britain, a country that has been one of America's closest allies in the war. On Thursday, Romney is scheduled to meet with several top British officials, including Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Perhaps the biggest test of Romney's pledge not to trash Obama while overseas will be his visit to Israel. On Tuesday, Romney offered his toughest critique yet of Obama's relationship with Israel, blasting the president for his "shabby treatment" of the country. "The people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world," Romney said.

Israel is one of the few foreign policy areas where Romney has strongly sought to distinguish himself from Obama, suggesting he'd be a better friend to the country. But, not unlike Afghanistan, he's offered vague details about how he exactly he would handle the region differently. Asked about his Middle East policy last month while speaking before the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, Romney simply said he would "do the opposite" of what Obama has done—a statement Obama advisers criticized in a conference call ahead of Romney's trip this week.

Romney has moved to cultivate relationships among top Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has known Romney since the two briefly worked together at the Boston Consulting Group in the late 1970s. In addition to making a speech in Jerusalem, Romney is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority leader Salam Fayyad while in the region, where tricky subjects like Iran and Syria are likely to come up.

But Romney aides insist the candidate will focus less on policy and more on atmospherics, emphasizing the country's close relationship with Israel. It's a move aimed to help Romney make inroads with Jewish and evangelical Christian voters back home.

"He feels strongly about the importance of locking arms with a number of these leaders in Israel," Romney adviser Dan Senor told reporters last week. "He feels strongly that threats to Israel are threats to America."

Romney will end his trip in Poland, where he's expected to make a major speech in Warsaw. He'll also meet with key leaders in the country, including Lech Walesa, the human rights leader who led the fight to bring down communist rule in the country.

Polish leaders have been cool to Obama since he scrapped plans for a missile defense site three years ago—a move Romney criticized in his VFW speech on Tuesday as a "unilateral concession to the Russian government."

But not unlike other legs of his trip, Romney's stop in Poland will force him to do a delicate dance between distinguishing what he would do as president without trashing the president too much while abroad. Romney has made clear he disagrees with what he views as Obama's too-friendly relationship with Russia—a subject that is almost certainly to be a key theme in his visit to Poland.