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.