In Libya Response, a Glimpse of the Real Romney Foreign-Policy Approach

Here's what the crisis showed about how the candidates do -- and don't -- differ on foreign affairs.

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Should Mitt Romney have waited a few more hours before he criticized President Obama's handling of the attacks in Egypt and Libya on Tuesday? Should Obama, if he was so concerned about politicking against a backdrop of tragedy, have refrained from firing back, or declined to campaign Wednesday night in Las Vegas?

Who cares?

If the foreign-policy controversy currently engulfing the campaign is just a matter of timing and propriety, it's not a particularly revealing contrast between the candidates. The real question is what substantive critique lies behind Romney's criticism, and what it tells us about how he would conduct foreign policy differently. And here, beneath the campaigns' petty back-and-forth, there is a real and revealing debate to be discerned.

A window into Romney's thinking came Wednesday afternoon, when Dan Senor -- the onetime Bush administration spokesman in Iraq, and currently one of the most influential foreign-policy advisers to Romney, according to my sources -- appeared on CNN to defend the candidate, who had been widely criticized for his allegedly hasty response to the unfolding crisis.

The events of recent days, Senor told Wolf Blitzer, were "a reminder of the chaos that a lot of the policies of this administration have sowed." So that is Critique No. 1 -- that Obama and his policies are, directly or indirectly, to blame for the current outbreak of violence.

The focus of Romney's attacks has been the statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, issued before the protests there began, regretting "efforts ... to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." After protesters breached the compound, the embassy reissued the statement via Twitter. "The statement that came out of the administration yesterday, that was reissued in social media after the violence, criticized quote-unquote 'bigotry' in the United States as being responsible for that violence," Senor said. "That's what [Romney] was criticizing, the idea that American bigotry was responsible for that violence." This is Critique No. 2: that Obama's reaction to a foreign-policy crisis was not to vigorously take on the attackers, but to blame America. It's the subject of Romney's book, No Apology, and his insistence that unlike Obama, he will never "apologize for America." Though Obama supporters object that he has not, in fact, apologized for America, he has occasionally expressed regret or ambivalence about various American actions, something Romney and others see as projecting a less-than-unconditional faith in U.S. primacy. As Sen. Jon Kyl rather provocatively put it, "This is like a judge telling the woman that got raped, 'You asked for it because of the way you dressed.'"

But, as Blitzer pointed out, the embassy statement was apparently a rogue one; administration officials have since said it wasn't cleared by Washington and didn't represent the official line. To this, Senor responded that if Washington wasn't working closely with its embassy in Egypt, that in itself constituted a lapse. The embassy in Cairo is one of the largest American diplomatic installations in the world, he said, and under the Bush Administration its staff worked closely with the State Department's Near East Division. "If there was a breakdown in communication, that's certainly disappointing," he said. This is Critique No. 3: that the administration's management of foreign affairs has been inattentive and scattershot. This attack is echoed by the many conservatives critical of the fact that Obama has reportedly missed more than half of his daily intelligence briefings, as well as the constant mockery from the right of the time he spends golf-playing and fundraising -- the idea that the president is just not particularly committed to doing his job.

At the same time, Senor pointed for vindication to the fact that the administration did, "nine or 10 hours" after the objectionable embassy statement, finally disavow it. This point, also found in the Romney camp's talking points on the matter, is supposed to mean that Romney can't be criticized for criticizing the embassy statement, because Obama has also criticized the embassy statement. But of course, Romney did not say, "I agree with the president -- the embassy statement was wrong." What he said was, in essence, "I blame the president for the embassy statement that the president also believes was wrong." However circular, this is Critique No. 4: that Obama has sent "mixed signals" to our allies and enemies alike. It's an attack with roots in the administration's cautious public responses to events such as the 2009 Iranian protests and the 2011 Egyptian revolution, both of which Obama initially held back from rather than lend full and forceful support to the rebels.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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