Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s recent remarks about the tragic shooting of six members of the Sikh community in Wisconsin stirred controversy, not because he said anything particularly shocking, but because he confused the pronunciation with the word “sheik." For the record, Sikh is pronounced like “seek (Americanized) or sik,” but with a slight “h” sound at the end of the word. A minor mistake for now, it might have big implications for the foreign policy of hypothetical Romney presidency.
Several things become clear: Mitt Romney only found out what a Sikh is after the news of the shooting spread. Second, he has little appreciation for small differences in words that translate into huge differences in practice – in this particular case, spanning religious differences that spark volatile confrontation in Asia. Knowing these differences is far too important to maintain America’s global positions carefully is crucial for an American president.
There is a poignant example for the audience to consider: at one memorable press conference in Baghdad, President George W. Bush was targeted by a reporter who threw his shoe at the then-American president. Bush managed to dodge the shoe, but the insult was loud and clear. In the Middle East, if you find yourself at the receiving end of someone’s foot appendage, you are perceived to be lower than dirt.
For faux-pas moments like these, Romney can effectively compromise not only American relations with other countries, but the country’s interests as well. It is clear that his international experience is poor to none, else he would not permit such a mistake. The president must by necessity be a worldly man, because he is at the helm of a multicultural country with a global presence and global interactions on a daily basis.
World leaders are not immune to making embarrassing mistakes, and most in fact do. However, for America it is critical to have an executive chief who is at least aware and appreciative of the characteristics of the regions with which his country is involved. Romney, with his financial background, is simply not suited to the role. This gaffe comes on the heels of his three-country foreign policy tour and perhaps the best example of his blatant lack of knowledge about the world came in Israel and the misplaced comments relating to culture and GDP in comparing Israel and Palestine.
One lesson can be drawn about Romney: from what seems a minor error, stems a potential foreign policy catastrophe for America.