Iran redux? Could killing of US ambassador sway presidential race?

The killing of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, is a stark reminder of the difficulties of US policy in a troubled region – and how events can intrude on a presidential campaign.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Obama, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meets with State Department personnel in the courtyard of the State Department in Washington on Wednesday, after speaking at the White House concerning the recent deaths of Americans in Libya.

Violent attacks on US diplomatic facilities in the Middle East, which killed US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three members of his staff, have raised a new and potentially volatile political issue in the United States at a crucial moment of the 2012 campaign.

The presidential election is now only a few weeks away. If nothing else, these latest Sept. 11 tragedies, plus Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for the US to outline circumstances under which it would use force to try and halt Iran’s nuclear program, are a reminder that unexpected events can roil a race for the White House.

Candidates can refine their economic messages, poll-test key words about leadership, and allocate attack ad dollars with precision, but at the end of the day events are in the saddle and ride mankind.

“The embassy assaults are a sobering reminder not only of the deep anger and dysfunction that plagues the broader Middle East, but of the enormous difficulty the United States has in dealing with this part of the world,” wrote Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, on Wednesday morning. “The level of distrust and fury toward America is not the sort of thing you heal with a speech or two.”

President Obama on Wednesday made a brief statement in the Rose Garden condemning the attacks and praising the late Ambassador Stevens. “There is absolutely no justification to this kind of senseless violence, none,” said Obama, adding that “it is especially tragic that [Stevens] died in Benghazi because it is a city he helped to save."

Meanwhile, GOP challenger Mitt Romney at a Wednesday press conference doubled down on earlier criticism of the administration’s Middle East policies. He hit at the US embassy in Cairo for issuing a statement that appeared to condemn the US creator of an anti-Muslim film that inflamed an Egyptian mob.

“When our ground [is] being attacked and being breached ... the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America’s values is never the right course,” said Mr. Romney.

Some conservatives go farther, saying that the attacks are signs of the weakness of Obama’s foreign policy leadership and are reminiscent of the events that helped drive another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, from office.

“Is this 1979?” wrote conservative commentator Ed Morrissey on the Hot Air! web site.

As President Carter abandoned the Shah of Iran, so did Obama abandon Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, wrote Mr. Morrissey. “And once again, we have ‘students’ assaulting our embassy in the capital, this time Cairo, without so much as an apology from the radical Islamist government now running the nation,” he wrote.

But criticizing a sitting US president at a time when American diplomats are dying is a dangerous political game, noted other commentators. Romney’s insistence that the US had “apologized” for the anti-Muslim movie appeared to be based on an embassy Twitter message that, among other things, condemned attacks on all faiths, and was issued prior to the attack on the embassy itself, not after. Jumping into this situation, a candidate may appear to be a more forceful leader than the incumbent – or they may look opportunistic and small.

NBC’s First Read political site judged Romney’s original statement “one of the most over-the-top and (it turns out) incorrect attacks of the general-election campaign.”

First Read, co-authored by veteran political reporter Chuck Todd among others, judged the Romney attacks to be news-cycle campaigning that had gone awry. Romney should have waited until all the facts were in, according to this analysis.

“After the facts have come out, last night’s Romney statement only feeds the narrative that his campaign is desperate,” the analysis concludes.

Even some fellow Republicans are voicing regret over Romney’s decision to criticize the administration at this delicate moment.

“They probably should have waited,” noted former Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire in an MSNBC appearance Wednesday.

The politics of foreign policy in the 2012 campaign are complicated. On the one hand, it is an issue that Republicans traditionally have an edge on, as Democrats do with the protection of social programs. But in polls, Obama in particular is rated a stronger foreign policy leader than his opponent.

In a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey of registered voters, 51 percent of respondents said they trusted Obama more to handle international affairs, while 38 percent said they trusted Romney more.

It’s possible that Romney’s statements are meant, not to win wavering independents, but to rally the Republican faithful. That’s Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza’s take in today’s The Fix.

The GOP base has long seen Obama as a weak apologist, and Romney’s words appeal to that world view, writes Mr. Cillizza.

But that base is already energized about the election. Romney’s approach here could backfire, according to this analysis.

“Romney’s approach hands the Obama team an opening to cast the challenger as not ready for the job, someone who jumps to conclusions before all the facts are known,” writes Cillizza.

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