Mitt Romney has been surprisingly reticent about attacking President Obama’s handling of the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, but on Monday, his campaign signaled he will begin to take a harder line on Mr. Obama’s foreign policy overall heading into Wednesday’s first debate.
The movement comes even as Mr. Romney is facing criticism from fellow Republicans, and overseeing an internal debate within his own campaign, over how hard he should push on the Libya assault itself — which left The U.S. ambassador and three others dead, and which Mr. Obama’s team belatedly acknowledged was likely an organized terrorist attack.
Mr. Romney fired one shot Monday in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that accused the administration of minimizing the seriousness of the Libya attack and other threats in the region.
His campaign also said he plans to deliver a major foreign-policy speech in the next few weeks, giving a hint at what is to come by arguing in the Journal editorial that the United States seems to be standing by watching events in the Middle East unfold, instead of playing a role in shaping them.
“We’re not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies,” Mr. Romney wrote. “And that’s dangerous.”
But he shied away from the kinds of specific questions Republicans in Congress have been posing about lack of security at U.S. diplomatic posts and whether the administration had intelligence warnings ahead of the Libya attack.
After plunging into the issue soon after the first attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo by making a statement sharply critical of Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney has been far more cautious on the topic in recent days, going after Mr. Obama during some campaign stops, while avoiding the mention of Libya completely in others.
Some foreign-policy experts on the right say it’s high time for Mr. Romney to go further, particularly with the first of three presidential debates set for Wednesday night.
“I think the general inclination of the campaign is to talk about the economy, which is fine, but this demands a response,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “When [CNN anchor] Anderson Cooper is hitting the administration harder [on Libya] than the Republican candidate, then that seems a little odd.”
In a two-part open letter to Mr. Romney posted on her blog, Ms. Pletka skewered the GOP candidate over the Journal piece, which she said was “way too light on substance and vision.”
“Americans want to elect a man with more than simply the vision to note that his opponent stinks,” she said. “What’s yours?”
Michael O’Hanlon, an expert on Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East at the Brookings Institution, argued that Mr. Romney has gone as far as he can so far in criticizing Mr. Obama on Libya without looking unseemly, but that could change.
“It is possible, however, that he will intensify his criticism in the coming weeks as the situation stabilizes and available information increases,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Times.
Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, said Mr. Romney has laid out clear disagreements with the president on the right response to the recent terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic posts in the region.
“He has also said that many questions remain about security at our diplomatic posts and what the White House knew in terms of who was responsible for the attacks and whether our response was strong enough,” Mr. Madden said.
The killings in Libya and the lingering questions about why they occurred are a marked departure from Mr. Obama’s confident campaign narrative that under his leadership, Osama bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is on the path to defeat.
After first blaming an anti-Islam film produced in the United States for sparking the violent protests, the administration eventually concluded they were the result of premeditated terrorism. But Mr. Obama has not said so himself, and last week once again said at the U.N. General Assembly that the film generated the violence.
With just five weeks to go till the election, polls are showing Mr. Romney behind in nine critical swing states, and the October debates provide Mr. Romney an opportunity to change the course of the election.
Over the weekend, his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and several other Romney surrogates took Mr. Obama to task for the attack in Libya, with Mr. Ryan calling the administration’s response slow, confused and inconsistent.
“We’re seeing the ugly fruits of the Obama foreign policy unravel around the world on our TV screens,” Mr. Ryan said. “Syria, you’ve got 20,000 dead people. Iran is closer toward a nuclear weapon. The Middle East peace process is in shambles, and we have our flags being burned around the world. Russia is thwarting us at every stage in the process. This is a weak foreign policy with terrible results, which makes us less safe.”
Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.