Just last month, no political analyst would have named Benghazi as an issue that could potentially affect the presidential election.
Yet the Arab Spring, Islamic extremism, Iran’s nuclear program, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s clear red line may find resurgent importance in this presidential run.
Voters have increasingly sent foreign policy, national security, and even terrorism to the rock-bottom depths of polls ranking the most important issues at the ballot box.
Yet presidential and congressional campaigns alike know that a turn of global events, as highlighted by the Sept. 11 attack in Libya and this week of world leaders streaming through Turtle Bay, can turn voters’ attention back to whether a candidate is equipped to best represent America’s and mankind’s interests on the global stage.
The third and last of the presidential debates next month will be focused on foreign policy. The Oct. 22 face-off will be moderated by CBS’ Bob Schieffer at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., a swing state whose voters have historically been concerned about international affairs issues ranging from Israel to Cuba.
That’s nearly a month away, and any number of topics could be catapulted into the headlines between now and then. But if Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy in recent days is any indication, Republicans are hoping that Benghazi and other hot-button crises can highlight their candidate’s commander in chief chops.
The Romney camp has been pushing out numerous stories to the media about the White House’s changing story on the nature of the attack on the U.S. consulate and about the security posture in light of previous attacks in the region.
“If the president thinks the tragic events in Libya were acts of terrorism, he should say so himself. Mitt Romney believes these tragic acts were terrorism and should be condemned as such,” Ryan Williams, Romney campaign spokesman, said Wednesday.
“You think he’d address the American people when something like this happens on the anniversary of 9/11,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on Fox’s Hannity on Wednesday, adding a reference to the Obama camp’s criticism of Romney’s statement the evening of 9/11 slamming the administration for sympathizing with the attackers. “It’s unbelievable. It kind of reminds me of what Barack Obama likes to talk about other people about shooting first and aiming later. I think he should take his own advice. You know, this is a serious situation over there.”
Perhaps no Romney surrogate has unloaded on the administration as much as former George H.W. Bush chief of staff John Sununu, who blasted President Obama as too “lazy and detached” to sit through presidential briefings — for which Ambassador Chris Stevens paid the ultimate price.
“This president thinks he’s so smart, he doesn’t have to go through that!” Sununu said Thursday of Obama’s record of missed presidential daily briefings. “He thinks he doesn’t need to put the extra work in for going through that process. That’s why I say he’s lazy and detached. And unfortunately, Ambassador Stevens suffered the consequences of us not providing adequate security there.”
Even as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) called for more answers into the deadly attack, he tried to downplay any notion that the move was campaign fodder.
“The Republicans are working overtime to try to exploit a very normal, run-of-the-course, administrative letter that we agreed to on a bipartisan basis in our committee, simply to get some additional questions put in front of the State Department that are part of their already existing investigation,” Kerry said on MSNBC today.
“This is not a challenge. It is nothing new. It is not something out of the ordinary,” he said. “And I agreed to do it as a matter of bipartisanship, because we thought these were important questions that people ought to be examining.”
Kerry has been playing fellow Massachusetts man Romney in Obama’s debate prep.
Other Democrats chided that any finger-pointing over the Benghazi attack should wait as long a thorough investigation takes, or until members return to Congress and their investigative panels after the election in the lame-duck session.
“This tragedy, this loss of an American ambassador and three others shouldn’t be made part of the partisan fight that is our presidential election and other elections around the country. And I think it is difficult at times, frankly regrettable that some candidates have tried to seek political gain in characterizing this one way or the other,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said Tuesday.
“I really think what we should be focusing on is the important lessons we can learn from this, and sustaining America’s engagement in a critical part of the world, whereas you know, there are so many other places that demand and need our attention and engagement,” he added.
The Bengahzi developments follows the Republican jump on Obama’s comments that violent protests were “bumps in the road” on the Arab Spring’s path to democracy.
The Obama camp tried to turn focus to another part of the world with an ad that’s part economy, part foreign policy — accusing Romney of happily investing in Chinese companies while jobs go overseas. Romney has accused Obama of not being tough enough on China.
They took the meme one step further today when Obama today blocked a Chinese company from acquiring four wind farms in northern Oregon — the first time in more than two decades that a U.S. president has blocked this type of foreign business deal.
Kerry’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was likely a preview of how Obama will try to hit at Romney in that third debate.
“We’ve all learned Mitt Romney doesn’t know much about foreign policy. But he has all these ‘neocon advisors’ who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them — after all, he’s the great outsourcer,” Kerry said earlier this month in Charlotte. “‘President Mitt Romney’ — three hypothetical words that mystified and alienated our allies this summer. For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas. It wasn’t a goodwill mission — it was a blooper reel.”
Foreign policy’s resurgence isn’t limited to the presidential race, though.
In one of the redistricting face-offs that saw incumbent pitted against incumbent, staunchly pro-Israel Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) was defeated by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), who signed a J Street letter calling for easing the Gaza blockade and courted Arab voters in the mixed district. In opposing Rothman, the president of the American Arab Forum accused the congressman of disloyalty to America out of his support for Israel.
Pascrell now faces Republican Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who called on Pascrell last week to cease his support for New Jersey Imam Mohammad Qatanani, who was faced with deportation for failing to disclose that he was a member of Hamas. “As a congressman who swore an oath to protect the Constitution, Congressman Pascrell’s stated intention of doing ‘everything in his power’ to subvert the efforts of the American government to deport someone whose stated intention it is to remove our First Amendment rights – perhaps the most important pillar of our Constitution – is preposterous,” said Boteach. “Not only must Pascrell utterly repudiate Qatanani and return all donations he has received from the imam and/or his supporters, but Pascrell must repudiate his public comments defending the Imam.”
In California’s San Fernando Valley, two strong supporters of Israel now face each other in the general election after emerging the top two candidates in the primary: Ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.). Sherman currently has a 13- point lead over Berman, but that narrows to a five-point lead among Jewish voters.
For those Valley voters, their only choice come November will be to send a pro-Israel congressman packing thanks to redistricting.
Still, foreign policy was generally an afterthought at both nominating conventions and campaigns have tended to cater toward polls that show an electorate less concerned about the fall of a ruthless dictator as they are about a fall in unemployment.
That doesn’t mean both presidential camps aren’t playing like they believe they can gain ground on questions of global leadership and American exceptionalism.
Former President Bill Clinton welcomed Romney to the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York on Tuesday as a former governor who supported Clinton’s AmeriCorps initiatives.
“If there’s one thing we’ve — we’ve learned in this election season, by the way, it is that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good,” Romney quipped after thanking Clinton for the introduction.
Romney said he hoped to return to the meeting a year from now as president, “to remind the world of the goodness and the bigness of the American heart.”
“I never apologized for America. I believe America has been one of the greatest forces for good the world has ever known,” he said. “We can hold that knowledge in our hearts with humility and unwavering conviction.”
In another part of town, in another foreign policy speech just as suited for the campaign trail, Obama was telling the United Nations General Assembly that “America will never retreat from the world.”
“We will bring justice to those who harm our citizens and our friends, and we will stand with our allies,” he said. “We are willing to partner with countries around the world to deepen ties of trade and investment, and science and technology, energy and development — all efforts that can spark economic growth for all our people and stabilize democratic change.”