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.