WASHINGTON: The killing of Americans in Libya and the sacking of the U.S. Embassy in Egypt present President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney with a sudden, delicate leadership test 55 days from the election day.
The current commander-in-chief and the man who wants to oust him faced an immediate challenge to measure their words on a fast-developing crisis, which has many Americans in harm’s way, with their own narrower political interests.
Obama, appearing in the White House Rose Garden, somberly condemned the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, projected presidential dignity, called on Americans to unite and promised action to protect diplomats in the Arab world.
His remarks, though unfolding in a highly political context, stuck to foreign policy, as he mourned slain U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and his comrades and vowed justice.
But the president’s unspoken political mission was to exploit and enhance perceptions of him as a steely global leader and to shield his own election prospects from immediate damage from any voter outrage at home.
A new Transatlantic Trends poll published Wednesday found 54 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, while 66 percent are happy with his record on fighting terrorism.
Romney, behind in the presidential race and under fire as a diplomatic neophyte, muscled in on the media narrative with a highly political response, sparking accusations his reaction was crass and a “disaster.”
Some observers compared his remarks to ex-Republican John McCain’s fumbling attempt in 2008 to meet the erupting financial crisis, partly credited with ensuring his defeat.
Romney was already on thin political ground after a gaffe-strewn foreign tour in July cast doubt on his readiness to lead.
The former Massachusetts governor unloaded on the administration over a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo which effectively condemned a film by a U.S. director deemed offensive to Islam which sparked the riot.
“It is disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” Romney said late Tuesday.
Obama’s camp swiftly condemned Romney for playing politics while Washington was confronting the death of personnel in Libya.
Romney’s line was born of his conceit that despite masterminding the killing of Osama bin Laden and a ruthless drone program to wipe out terror suspects, Obama is weak, and appeases and apologizes to U.S. foes abroad.
Romney doubled down in a press conference Wednesday, mourning Americans lost, trying to look presidential while speaking in front of U.S. flags and castigating Obama over Egypt again.
“It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values,” he said.
But one senior Republican foreign policy hand quoted by the Buzzfeed website described Romney’s tactic as an “utter disaster.”
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum said Romney’s bid to “score political points on the killing of American diplomats was a dismal business in every respect.”
“Disregarding every other aspect, however, it was graceless and stupid as a matter of politics.”
Democratic Senator John Kerry eviscerated the former Massachusetts governor for playing politics.
“It is exactly the wrong time to throw political punches. It is a time to restore calm and proceed wisely.”
Anthony Cordesman, a respected analyst at the Center For Strategic and International Studies, cautioned against political “overreaction.”
“It may be the duty of opposition candidate to criticize and challenge, but not at the cost of America’s strategic interests, lasting relations with key nations in the Middle East, or somehow making this an issue that puts Christian against Muslim or the West against the Arab world,” Cordesman said.
“This is precisely the goal of those violent Islamic extremists that are our real enemies. They want this polarization,” Cordesman said in a memo.
Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Princeton University, said such crises pose peril, but also opportunity for candidates.
“A crisis like this can play both ways. For Barack Obama – the risk is clear,” Zelizer said, warning a poor response could undermine the president’s claim to foreign policy primacy.
Such situations are important for voters to assess how potential leaders respond to the fog of a fast moving crisis abroad, he said.
For Obama, the risk is that violence spreads, more Americans are killed, and he looks feckless as a result.
Democrats are haunted by the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980 that left then President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy credentials in ruins, and opened the door for Republican Ronald Reagan.