Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy Gamble

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney listens to a question from a reporter at the airport in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa Sept. 7, 2012.

During the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney’s watchword was caution. But over the last two months, things have changed. The polls began to tilt against him in early August, after months of an Obama ad onslaught. The selection of Paul Ryan was an uncharacteristic risk — and perhaps a tacit admission that Romney needed to do more to oust Barack Obama than simply prosecute the case against his economic stewardship. After all, Presidential candidates don’t take risks unless they have to.

In recent days, Obama has seen a post-convention polling bounce and Romney’s campaign has bit at every morsel of news that’s passed their field of vision, including the Chicago teachers’ strike and the initial omission of “God” from the Democratic platform. Romney’s lacerating appraisal of the Administration’s handling of the tragedy in Benghazi and the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Tuesday is the most aggressive — and risky — gambit yet.

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The Libya criticism is an amplified version of a familiar tune: the President as a foreign policy apologist. Three years ago, Romney made the argument in his book, No Apology, a treatise that laid the groundwork for his second presidential bid. The claim that Obama hopscotches the globe asking forgiveness for America has been thoroughly debunked by independent fact-checkers. But Romney’s campaign believes it can point to the violence in Benghazi as evidence of the President’s feebleness abroad. “We have seen a foreign policy of weakness and decline in American influence and respect. Yesterday, we saw the consequences of this perceived weakness,” the Romney campaign wrote, as CNN’s Peter Hamby reported, in talking points disseminated to Republican surrogates.

Do the facts support Romney’s attack? The campaign released a statement from the candidate, under embargo, shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday night: “It’s 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 was referring to a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo that condemned “misguided individuals” who “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”

However, according to a senior administration official, the statement was not released in response to the attack on the Cairo embassy, where protesters breached the walls and replaced a U.S. flag with one of their own. It was an attempt to head off that attack. According to the senior administration official, the statement was released at approximately 6 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday. It came after Islamic groups called for protests on Sept. 11 in response to the offensive video.

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The Romney campaign doubled down in remarks Wednesday morning in Jacksonville. “I also believe the Administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning the attacks,” he said. “It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans, and to defend our values.” Four hours before the Romney campaign lifted the embargo on its statement Tuesday night, the State Department had, in fact, “condemn[ed] in strongest terms” the attack in Benghazi.” And by the time Romney spoke in Jacksonville Wednesday morning, Administration officials had told Jake Tapper of ABC News that “no one in Washington approved [the Cairo embassy’s] statement before it was released and it doesn’t reflect the views of the U.S. government.”

Romney acknowledged in his statement that the White House “distanced itself last night from the statement, saying it wasn’t ‘cleared by Washington.'” But he called that response evidence of “the mixed signals they’re sending to the world. In Romney’s estimation, Obama is both guilty of not stopping the embassy’s comments and then not standing behind them. He said it was “a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

Neither Obama, nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke Wednesday morning at the White House, apologized for American. On Twitter, the Cairo embassy said: “Neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.”

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There is some hypocrisy in Romney’s putative defense of the First Amendment, which protects speech that most people would consider offensive, such as art that depicts the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a lecherous boor. That Amendment also protects freedom of religion and assembly. In 2010, Romney, speaking through spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, opposed the construction of the so-called Ground Zero mosque (which was neither on Ground Zero, nor only a mosque). “The wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda compel rejection of this site,” Fehrnstrom told Politico. In other words, the building would have been incendiary — like the avowedly anti-Muslim video our values protect.

How would Romney have handled the Libya situation differently than Obama? “I spoke out when the key fact that I referred to was known. Which was that the embassy of the United States issued what appeared to be an apology for American principles. That was a mistake. And I believe that when a mistake is made of that significance, you speak out.” His broader policy toward the Libyan conflict, however, has never entirely been clear, as an ABC News chronology of his statements illustrates.

It is difficult to game out how Romney’s decision to go on the offensive will play. “Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later. And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that,” Obama said Wednesday during an interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes. TIME’s Mark Halperin argues that “his doubling down on criticism of the President for the statement coming out of Cairo is likely to be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign.” Some Republican foreign-policy heavyweights have conspicuously distanced themselves from his criticism. Others have praised his handling of the issue. If the Arab spring turns into an “Arab winter,” as Romney put it, and tumult spreads across the region, a backlash could certainly build against Obama’s handling of the uprising, leaving Romney to profit politically.

But there is no question that his politically charged reaction to the crisis is a major risk from a campaign that has been taking them with increasing frequency. With 55 days to go, such gambles suggest Team Romney sees it prospects slipping.

MORE: After Benghazi Consulate Attack, What’s Next for U.S. Relations with Libya and Egypt?