Washington Matters


Romney's Foreign Policy Gambit

Kenneth R. Bazinet

Unrest in the Middle East gives Romney an opening to ding Obama.



Heading into the crucial presidential debates, Mitt Romney is accusing President Barack Obama of projecting a weak image abroad and casting the commander in chief as the keeper of a Middle East policy that favors fiends over friends.

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Give Romney some credit: While it may appear to be a desperate attempt to reboot his floundering campaign yet again, when he picks a fight, he doesn’t shy away from attacking Obama’s strength -- his foreign policy.

But give Obama some credit, too: Romney’s decision to challenge the president’s foreign policy signals the GOP nominee is waving the white flag on the one issue that should have been a slam dunk for the former Massachusetts governor -- the economy.

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With 8.3% unemployment nationwide and last quarter’s GDP revised downward to 1.3%, well below where most economists had forecast it to be, international affairs has been Obama’s safe haven, at least until now. Renewed consumer confidence is generating a boost in Obama’s economic benchmark poll numbers, dulling the impact of Romney’s attacks in that arena.

Among the charges Romney is hurling at Obama, at the urging of his neoconservative national security advisers, are claims that the president has been too lenient on Iran, too short with Israel and too tolerant of China. Team Obama is rolling its eyes, but it’s also rolling the tape. The Chicago-based campaign has at least one trump card to play: highlighting headlines from Romney’s gaffe-filled trip abroad this summer that left European and Middle Eastern leaders wondering whether the Republican presidential hopeful is ready to assume a role on the international stage.

“There are extraordinary events going on in the Middle East, and considering those events, either one of them or all of them collectively, as bumps in the road shows a person who has a very different perspective about world affairs than the perspective I have," Romney told NBC.

The debates present his best chance to draw blood, face-to-face with Obama. The second of three presidential debates will include foreign policy questions. The final showdown on October 22 in Boca Raton, Fla., will be dedicated exclusively to global issues.

It’s a difficult roll of the dice for Romney to go after the president who gave the order to take out Osama bin Laden. But trailing in so many must-win swing states, he has no choice but to take the gamble. It’s pretty much now or never, and at least Romney has a reason to hope that he can gain the traction that has so far eluded his campaign. For the first time since before the successful mission to take out bin Laden, voters are casting some doubt about Obama’s leadership abroad.

The American people consistently have given Obama the thumbs-up on his handling of foreign affairs. But the president’s foreign-policy approval rating took a five-point decline to 49% in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken since turbulent anti-American protests swept across Middle Eastern capitals, including the devastating slaying of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya.

Of course, the opportunity to exploit a perceived weak spot offers no guarantee of success. Romney bungled his chance to chime in with any real authority by commenting before all the facts were known about the deadly disaster at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Romney attacked before he knew who was dead and how the dastardly deed was done. He was deemed a politically petty opportunist in the mainstream media, yet had he waited, he could have weighed in with some heft and could have scored his much-needed political points with dignity. For days after the protests, Romney’s handling of the events became the story.

Going forward, Romney must strike forcefully, and effectively, if he is going to convince Americans that foreign affairs are as important as the economy. That won’t be easy, of course, since economic issues still rank high with American voters.

But so far, Romney hasn’t offered a bold, new global initiative that Americans can grasp and that would let him slow Obama’s momentum. His stance is mostly criticism of Obama’s policies, rather than a legitimate alternative. Events beyond their control, like the monthly unemployment and quarterly productivity reports, give Romney the opening to swipe at the vulnerable Obama. It’s not quite a shameless schadenfreude strategy, but it’s close.

With reporting by Senior Associate Editor Richard Sammon



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