Foreign policy’s moment in campaign 2012

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent September 13, 2012

Campaign 2012 has produced plenty of flash points, some real and some manufactured.

Few have hit with as much fury, outrage, second-guessing and doubling down as the clash between Mitt Romney and President Obama over the terrible events in the Middle East that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

The haste with which Romney responded late Tuesday to the chaotic and unfolding events in Egypt and Libya spoke to a candidate who appeared overly eager to assert himself at a time when the election narrative had turned against him in the wake of the two political conventions.

How much his initial statement condemning the administration for sympathizing with anti-American interests in the Muslim world was motivated by political need rather than full comprehension of the events may never be known. Romney saw an opportunity and seized it.

Late Tuesday, the Republican nominee approved the release of an embargoed statement (so as not to break the tacit understanding about no aggressive campaigning on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks) and then almost immediately agreed to break the embargo. He appeared eager to gain a political advantage at a moment of national tragedy before all the facts were known.

Once that was done, the candidate for whom “No Apology” is more than just a book title, decided to go all in, preempting a presidential appearance in the Rose Garden to issue a denunciation of the administration’s actions and policies. “An apology for America’s values is never the right course,” Romney told reporters.

Obama, who almost smirked as he talked at the Democratic National Convention about Romney being a foreign-policy novice, stayed above the fray in his first public comments about the killings in Benghazi, Libya, and the riots in Cairo. But hours after that Rose Garden appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama dived back into the political debate, offering tart criticism of his rival in an interview with CBS News for “60 Minutes.”

“Governor Romney,” he said, “seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later. And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that. ” Obama said he would “let the American people judge” whether Romney had been irresponsible in his statements. His personal conclusion was obvious.

As events and reactions unfolded Wednesday, it became clear that Romney was leading a Republican Party divided in its response to his reaction to the crisis. Some Republicans rallied around him, condemning the Obama administration as weak and rudderless in its foreign policy. They also noted that the administration has distanced itself from the very statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt that Romney had attacked.

But others were either sharply critical of Romney for injecting politics into a moment when the country should be rallying together or far more measured in their reactions, mourning the loss of life while withholding political judgments for another day — the better course given what happened.

Among those who did not overreact was Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has been a frequent critic of Obama’s foreign policy. McCain told ABC News’s Jonathan Karl he had no criticism of the president’s initial handing of the crisis and begged off answering a question about whether Romney had gone too far with his statements.

McCain praised Stevens and the other Americans who had been killed. “I think we should frankly mourn for their families and praise their service,” he said. “I didn’t even see the [Romney] statement to tell you the truth, because frankly I was so worried about Chris Stevens and those other Americans. . . . My thoughts and prayers today are with the fallen.”

Pressed further, however, McCain declined to give Obama a pass on his handling of foreign policy. Iraq, he said, is unraveling. Afghanistan, he added, is a mess because of Obama’s desire to bring U.S. troops home as quickly as possible. “He does not believe in American exceptionalism,” McCain said of the president, “and therefore, he doesn’t believe that America should lead.”

As McCain’s fuller comments suggest, Romney’s rushed condemnation of Obama may not absolve the administration from questions about its Middle East policy and how it is handling the turmoil from the Arab Spring. For different reasons, both the incumbent and his challenger now find the foreign policy spotlight glaring.

That will be the coming debate, and although criticized by his Republican opponents, Obama counts foreign policy as a strong suit in the campaign. His approval ratings on foreign policy far eclipse those on economic issues. He would rather have the campaign turn on foreign policy than the economy.

Romney has many more questions to answer. He has been aggressive in his posture, black and white in his declarations about the world, seemingly eager for confrontation, whether with Iran or China or Russia. But he has hardly been sure-footed in the moment, whether on his foreign trip in July or this week.

Issues of foreign policy have been largely dormant throughout the campaign, subordinated to concerns about the economy and financial insecurities felt by so many families. Those issues will continue to be uppermost in voters’ minds as Election Day approaches.

But the events in the Middle East offer another prism through which voters should be judging the candidates, who appear to be as far apart in their approach to national security and foreign policy as they are in their views about creating jobs and reducing the deficit.

For more Dan Balz columns, go to postpolitics.com.

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