Here's what the crisis showed about how the candidates do -- and don't -- differ on foreign affairs.
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?
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.
That's the approach that an Obama adviser so memorably dubbed "leading from behind" in a New Yorker article -- an epithet meant to be approving that has since been taken up by the administration's critics, including Romney, as a rallying cry. To Obama and his team, the best leadership is cautious, thoughtful, and situationally based. To Romney, true leadership means being at the front of every parade. It means reacting with clarity, certainty and a ringing reiteration of American strength to every crisis, a certainty born of underlying ideals so secure that it is not altered by intervening events or changing facts on the ground.
In this way, Romney's reaction to the current crisis was actually an excellent proxy for his foreign-policy philosophy. He knew what he thought in an instant, where Obama preferred to wait and see. He was not deterred by the way the situation changed overnight; the facts might have been slightly different in the morning, including the small matter of the deaths of four U.S. officials, but Romney's underlying convictions were not.
There are conservatives who believe the whole "Arab Spring" has been a treacherous mirage -- that in celebrating the replacement of tyrannical but stable regimes with popular but uncertain ones, Obama is naively encouraging a new wave of dangerous Islamic fundamentalism. Romney does not appear to be of this school; he supported the intervention in Libya, if not entirely consistently, and celebrated Muammar Qaddafi's downfall. The presence of figures like Senor on his team, as well as various reports and my own conversations with Republican strategists, suggest that he shares the interventionist bent of Bush-era neoconservatism; on Wednesday, one of the leading neocons, Bill Kristol -- historically no Romney fan -- was one of few elite Republicans who fulsomely praised Romney's reaction to the international situation. Judging by his actions this week, Romney may also share another of Bush's trademarks: his unshakable "I'm the decider" certainty.
In the end, though, it's still far from clear what Romney would actually do differently than Obama beyond making tougher statements in some instances, and saying less in others. In a classic example, Romney says he would not have announced a deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but that he would stick to the withdrawal timetable Obama has announced. And perhaps this too is to be expected. Despite being elected in large part on a wave of antiwar sentiment, and despite taking a more conciliatory public posture, Obama has been criticized by liberals and libertarians, notably The Atlantic's relentless Conor Friedersdorf, for having essentially continued much of the Bush Administration's national-security policy, from failing to close Guantanamo to the Afghan surge to violations of civil liberties. (He did, of course, end the war in Iraq.) If Romney's foreign policy is to be of a piece with Bush's, it follows that it wouldn't differ much with Obama's either, except in tone.
At the end of his CNN interview, Senor said that Obama's Middle East policy "looks like a disaster right now to most Americans." That goes back to Critique No. 1 -- that Obama, in some nonspecific way, is to blame. It may be, more than any policy criticism, Romney's main attack on the president's handling of foreign affairs, and it's essentially the same as Romney's economic argument: What's happening out there sucks. Isn't that all you need to know to fire the president?