Advisers to Mitt Romney on Thursday defended his sharp criticism of President Obama and said that the deadly protests sweeping the Middle East would not have happened if the Republican nominee were president.
“There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation,” Richard Williamson, a top Romney foreign policy adviser, said in an interview. “For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we’ve had an American ambassador assassinated.”
Williamson added, “In Egypt and Libya and Yemen, again demonstrations — the respect for America has gone down, there’s not a sense of American resolve and we can’t even protect sovereign American property.”
The aggressive approach by Romney’s campaign thrust the issue of foreign policy to the forefront of the presidential campaign a day after the Republican candidate was widely criticized for blasting Obama while U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya were under attack.
Criticism from Republicans over their nominee’s handling of the situation overseas quieted Thursday, with influential voices in the party’s foreign policy establishment rallying to Romney’s defense. And it was Obama who faced criticism for saying that he did not consider Egypt an ally — a comment that his administration struggled to explain.
“The president can’t even keep track of who’s our ally or not. This is amateur hour — it’s amateur hour,” said Williamson, a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador. He was among those who counseled Romney to respond aggressively on Tuesday night and was offered by the campaign to speak about the candidate’s foreign policy.
Williamson was referring to Obama’s interview Wednesday night with Telemundo in which the president said that the U.S. relationship with Egypt was a “work in progress.”
“I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” Obama told Telemundo. “They’re a new government that is trying to find its way.”
Administration officials tried throughout the day to parse Obama’s statement on Egypt without appearing to contradict him.
Obama was right in “diplomatic and legal terms,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, because “ ‘ally’ is a legal term of art” that refers to countries with which the United States has a mutual defense treaty such as the NATO alliance.
But the United States tried to work around just that problem in 1989, creating the designation of “major non-NATO ally” for countries on which it wanted to bestow approval, weapons sales and defense cooperation prohibited to non-treaty nations. Egypt — along with Israel, Australia, Japan and South Korea — was among the first countries to be so designated that year.
Pressed to explain why a “major non-NATO ally” is not an ally, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated the treaty argument, then referred reporters to the White House. Later asked whether the United States still considers Egypt a “major non-NATO ally,” Nuland said “Yes.”
At campaign stops in Nevada and Colorado, Obama avoided any mention of Romney as he paid tribute to those who lost their lives in Libya and again promised to track down their killers.
But his campaign responded by noting that the protests this week were triggered by the video, not by U.S. policy, and that the video likely would still have been produced if Romney had been president. And they noted that there have been attacks on Americans under every president in recent history, including Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
“It is astonishing that the Romney campaign continues to shamelessly politicize a sensitive international situation,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “The fact is that any president of either party is going to be confronted by crises while in office, and Governor Romney continues to demonstrate that he is not at all prepared to manage them.”
Romney himself struck a more measured tone and tried to refocus on his core economic argument on the campaign trail Thursday in Northern Virginia. He did not mention Obama by name, but suggested that the president was a weak commander in chief and unreliable guardian of American strength abroad.
“As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we’re at the mercy of events instead of shaping events, and a strong America is essential to shape events,” Romney said at a rally in Fairfax County.
The approach on foreign policy by the Romney campaign is a signal that it feels it can gain some advantage in an area that has so far it has found problematic.
In addition to the criticism Romney received on Wednesday, he came under fire two weeks ago for failing to mention the war in Afghanistan or acknowledge U.S. troops serving abroad in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. In July, his tour through Europe and the Middle East was marred by missteps. And he has been ridiculed for his assertion that Russia is, “without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
“We were ready for a major debate on this,” Eliot A. Cohen, a former State Department official and foreign policy adviser to Romney, said in an interview. “It just happened to blow up now. It’s there, and it’s in some ways a clarifying moment.”
In debating foreign policy with Obama, Romney is perceived to be at a disadvantage. The president consistently has outpolled Romney on the issue, and he earned high marks for the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief political strategist, rejected the suggestion that voters may question Romney’s temperament and commander-in-chief credentials because of his early and aggressive response to the attacks in Egypt and Libya.
“It’s not an issue,” Stevens said in an interview. “It was an issue with Barack Obama four years ago, given the fact that he was younger and had little experience, and given his answers in the debates. He had stumble after stumble with foreign policy. Mitt Romney hasn’t. He’s run for president twice now and it’s not been his problem.”
Romney’s policy advisers laid out steps that a President Romney would have taken in the Middle East that they said Obama has not done.
“What would the governor do differently? It really starts with having a vision for the future of the Middle East, supporting those that have been shortchanged by the administration,” Mitchell Reiss, a top Romney policy adviser, said in an interview. “There are things that we can do in terms of what we say, the constancy of what our vision is — pluralism, respect for law, human dignity — these are things that you don’t hear from the administration, and the people in the region want to hear that.”
Romney’s campaign hopes to force a broader debate about America’s role in the world and to argue that while Obama has been successful in fighting terrorism, his foreign policies have resulted in waning U.S. influence abroad.
“We’ve got Barack Obama with a risk-adverse, lead-from-behind approach, and how’s that worked?” Williamson said. “We not only have the events in Egypt and Libya and now in Yemen, but we have in Syria 20,000-plus people killed, many by means of various atrocities by a regime, and the Obama administration is missing in action.”
Amy Gardner in Colorado and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.