From the killing of an ambassador to precipitous new brinkmanship in Asia and friction between U.S. and Israeli leaders over Iran, the past month has many asking whether the presidential election has suddenly entered a home stretch in which national security and foreign policy play as big a role as the economy.
Indeed, both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney used interviews that aired Sunday on “60 Minutes” to hit their rival on foreign policy.
However, political analysts on both sides of the aisle wonder more about whether Mr. Romney is capable of capitalizing on an issue that, until recently, looked like a strength for the Obama administration.
Based on the lackluster enthusiasm Mr. Romney’s trip to Europe inspired last month and the more recent blowback from his criticism of Mr. Obama’s posture on Muslim anger sweeping the Middle East, it is not yet clear that he can.
“I think in large part because Mitt Romney fumbled it badly — and even members of his own party who were criticizing him and his early statements just hours after our diplomats were killed — demonstrated his continued weakness on foreign policy relative to President Obama,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank.
“Romney did not project an aura of calm and certitude,” Mr. Katulis said. “He did not look like a leader. He looked like he was auditioning to be a Fox News commentator and not running for president of the United States.”
But Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, counters that, regardless of Mr. Romney’s response, the events in the Middle East conjure images of the last Democratic president to lose a re-election bid.
“It’s frustrating that Romney keeps shooting himself in the foot,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that Obama’s record now gives Romney a chance to reach the end zone. The events in the Middle East don’t make Obama look strong. They make him look like Jimmy Carter with Alzheimer’s.
“The campaign so far reminds me of an Ivy League football game,” Mr. Rubin quipped. “The fact is, one team’s going to fumble 10 times and the other is going to fumble 11. But eventually, someone’s going to come out on top.”
Mr. Obama’s soft-toned rhetoric and apologetic posture toward the Muslim world opened a unique opportunity for Mr. Romney. “Obama looks like a poodle being confronted by a Doberman pinscher of radical Islamists,” Mr. Rubin said. “He doesn’t come off as having been successful.
“There comes a time when he’s got to stop apologizing and stand up for principle,” he added. “If he doesn’t, Romney can run away with the game.”
Mr. Rubin’s words were echoed by the Republican candidate himself in the “60 Minutes” interview.
Mr. Romney chided the president’s failure to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. as “a mistake” and said it “sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends.”
“The exact opposite approach is what’s necessary,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Obama used his “60 Minutes” interview to brush off Mr. Romney’s criticisms by saying the Republican has been vague about what he would do differently vis-a-vis Iran and Syria.