President Obama accused Mitt Romney of shooting before he aimed when his GOP rival criticized the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for issuing a pre-protest statement that unsuccessfully sought to pacify the menacing crowds.
But Obama wasn’t talking only about the Egypt crisis. After all, his own State Department distanced itself from the press release, and Obama told CBS’s 60 Minutes he wouldn’t second-guess diplomats trying to stave off a riot—hardly a ringing endorsement of the embassy’s action.
Also on Obama’s mind was Romney’s harsh criticism during delicate negotiations with the Chinese government over the fate of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng. After reports in early May that Chen was coerced into leaving the U.S. Embassy, where he had been given temporary refuge after escaping from house arrest, and when his fate was apparently in doubt, Romney called Obama’s stewardship of the matter “a day of shame” for America. Top U.S. diplomats continued working on Chen’s release and secured it. Chen and his wife left China on May 19. In the aftermath, conservative writer Bill Kristol described Romney’s criticism as “foolish.”
Obama has never forgotten Romney’s broadsides in the middle of the Chen talks. The latest dustup over Egypt and the parallel indictment of Obama’s post-Arab Spring policies in the Middle East gall the president and feel to senior advisers like part of Romney’s blustering belligerence on foreign policy.
Romney’s team sees it differently, contending that Obama responds to outside criticism and unpleasant political realities by changing course. Even though polls consistently show Romney trailing Obama on foreign-policy credibility, the Romney team fancies itself as a change agent. Blasting Obama on the Chen case, the campaign believes, intensified the administration’s push to win Chen’s freedom.
Romney’s advisers foresee policy shifts after the Egypt dustup as well. Obama, they said, has now moved to openly question Egypt’s policies in a post-Mubarak era; he declared in an interview with Telemundo, “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” That marked a significant change in tone.
Egypt had long been regarded as a bulwark of stability in the region. But in the same interview, Obama indicated that the new government of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi is trying to “find its way.” Obama advisers scoff at Team Romney’s contention that it pressured any policy changes, dismissing it as an attempt to extract some postgame justification for harsh and wayward campaign rhetoric. “In the moment, these criticisms are premature, and glaringly so,” said a senior campaign strategist.
Romney’s campaign is trying to galvanize conservative displeasure with Obama and open up a foreign-policy debate over the future of America’s confrontation with radical Islam. After studiously sticking to an economic argument against Obama’s reelection, Romney advisers say they are now prepared to argue that the president is undercutting U.S. strategic interests in the roiling world of the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
The specific charge is that the administration is so worried about Islamic sensibilities that it is losing the fight for pluralism and minority rights in nations that have shaken off dictatorial governments. “Sometimes it seems we are at the mercy of events instead of shaping events,” Romney said on Thursday.
Obama’s advisers say that Romney might have more credibility if his own Libya policy hadn’t been so contradictory: He criticized the president for foot-dragging during the early uprising against Muammar el-Qaddafi; then he said Obama had set himself up for failure by authorizing U.S. military involvement and questioned the wisdom of ousting Qaddafi; and then he celebrated the strongman’s death.
The Romney camp says the debate is not about Libya’s past but the Middle East’s future and isn’t limited to protests there and in Egypt, which by week’s end had spread to Yemen and Tunisia. It is also, they say, about Israel’s mounting impatience—which flared this week—with sanctions against Iran and Western efforts to deter development of an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability. Disagreements between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which had to be partially papered over in a one-hour call between the two leaders, will receive renewed attention in the coming days, his advisers said. “This was a very bad week in foreign policy for the president,” a top Romney adviser said. “And we intend to press this and continue this debate.”
Initially, other Republicans recoiled from or simply ignored Romney’s criticism of Obama, coming as it did amid confirmation that terrorists in Benghazi had killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. consular personnel. Within a day, though, Romney had rallied some GOP support—from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, The Wall Street Journal, and National Review—and for the first time in weeks found favor among conservative talk-radio hosts who had been lambasting his campaign for its alleged timidity.
“Mitt Romney is getting his groove on,” Laura Ingraham said approvingly.
Obama’s top advisers see a similar pattern here—infused with what they regard as a look-before-you-leap inexperience and a reflexive tendency to speak to the conservative base. Romney’s team doesn’t disagree but now sees, for the first time, gathering threats in the Middle East as a way to put Obama’s foreign policy to the test and shake up the contours of a campaign defined largely by economics.
It’s a late-inning gambit that Romney started with decidedly mixed results and a lack of situational awareness. For a risk-averse challenger, this is new terrain. And Team Obama’s sentiments can be summed up in the words of another president in a different context: Bring it on.
This article appears in the September 15, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.