Until now, the Arab Spring has felt like a wash in domestic political terms. Conservatives have charged Obama with “losing” Egypt to the Islamists after mishandling the region’s politics. Just last month, Mitt Romney complained that Obama “abandoned the [George W. Bush] freedom agenda,” adding that “we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner.” But the tumult and the rise of Islamist leaders didn’t seem very threatening to most Americans — at least not before the deaths in Benghazi this week.
Libya is a special case, thanks to our military intervention and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. But even that country is a political puzzle: Republicans are obsessed with the concept of “leading from behind” as a metaphor for U.S. policy generally, but it’s not clear that war-weary Americans mind letting other countries take the lead for a spell. Many Republicans are also trapped by their own flip-floppery on whether Obama should have gotten involved in Gaddafi’s overthrow. Obama, meanwhile, doesn’t brag much about the unhinged dictator’s demise. In Charlotte, the ratio of Gaddafi mentions to Osama bin Laden mentions was about 1 to 50. Perhaps that’s because the White House has always feared the Libyan revolution could turn dark as it did this week.
The question now is whether the Arab Spring might become a political liability for President Obama. The deaths of four Americans in Libya will certainly raise hard questions about whether security was adequate. But Mitt Romney can hardly argue that we were better off with Gaddafi in power (not least because he celebrated the dictator’s fall). Odds are also good that Obama will exact some retributive “justice” for the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues, possibly enhancing his Commander in Chief stature.
Cairo may be the bigger danger for the President — and for America. It’s possible that Libya entailed a small group of terrorists exploiting weak security — a horrible but isolated event in a place of limited strategic importance. Egypt by contrast is a nation of 82 million people that borders Israel and has been a historic rival of our rival, Iran. The problem there is not a band of armed terrorists but rather anti-Americanism in the country’s government — including a President who wants the release of a jailed cleric behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — and, judging by the crowds outside the U.S. embassy, within a substantial segment of the population. It was jarring to hear Obama say this week that he doesn’t quite consider Egypt an ally anymore.
What Romney can do with all this isn’t terribly apparent, though. He can repeat his strained charge that Obama has “apologized” for the U.S.’s behavior around the world, demonstrating weakness and inviting aggression. But although bellicosity and jingoism were winning political themes for Republicans a few years ago, it’s far from clear that Americans today are in any mood for chest-thumping and an escalation of tensions in the Middle East. He can insist that Obama cut off the $1.5 billion in mostly military aid the U.S. sends to Cairo. But he’d likely take heat from Republican foreign policy elites who believe maintaining ties with the Egyptian military is crucial.
Romney’s best hope might be to let the television images do the talking. Footage of angry, American-flag-burning mobs could have a powerful effect on the white male working-class voters whom Romney is courting — leaving them with a sense, however inchoate, that Obama doesn’t have a handle on things. (The storming of an American embassy à la Tehran 1979, though Romney couldn’t possibly hope for such an outcome, might transform the campaign.) But ultimately there’s no predicting. The presidential campaign debate tends to be simplistic and crude. The complex implications of the Arab Spring, and its darkening, defy the familiar frame. And that must make both campaigns unusually nervous.