Until last week, conventional wisdom held that the 2012 presidential election would almost entirely turn on domestic policy: the economy and jobs, contraception, and health care, among other things. With the war in Iraq wrapped up and a broad consensus on how to fight the war in Afghanistan, there seemed to be no grounds for a big fight on foreign policy.
Last week, however, we all learned once again the lesson that elections rarely follow predictable narratives. Former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was once asked by a reporter what could disrupt governments and elections most. His response: "Events, dear boy, events." Events caught up with the U.S. on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and suddenly, foreign policy and diplomatic competence has taken center stage. But will it stay there?
Ironically, Democrats had promised a fight on foreign policy just a week earlier, at their national convention. Sen. John Kerry, the party’s nominee in 2004, called the Republican ticket "the most inexperienced foreign-policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades." Barack Obama himself attacked Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as "new to foreign policy," and warned that "they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly." Democrats salivated at the prospect of highlighting Obama's foreign-policy experience — all of which he compiled over the last three-and-a-half years — as a contrast to the GOP's nominees, and a transparent attempt to deflect the election away from the economy.
A few days later, that strategy has entirely collapsed. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was murdered, along with three other American diplomatic personnel in Benghazi. Eruptions at a number of other diplomatic outposts throughout the region occurred nearly simultaneously, blamed mainly on a months-old YouTube video that provided an incoherent criticism of Mohammed, along with laughably bad production values. Scenes of American embassies on fire in Cairo and Tunis, plus the deaths in Benghazi, suddenly turned the Obama administration's handling of the Arab Spring from an asset into a potential liability.
Complicating matters for the White House was the initial response to the crisis. The embassy in Cairo rebuked the makers of the film for "abuse" of free speech, which drew immediate criticism from Romney and was disavowed by the Obama administration. The White House insisted all week that the Benghazi attack was a riot that "spun out of control," as U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice claimed repeatedly on Sunday. However, the Libyan government strongly contradicted that conclusion, claiming that the attack had been conducted by terrorists using the protests as cover, and that the motive was American policy in the region. Questions also arose over how the consulate in Benghazi — located in the eastern region of Libya, where al -Qaeda recruited for its network in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003 — could have been left with such weak security, especially on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Obama himself raised questions about his own policy when asked about the status of Egypt. The Cairo embassy had been under siege, penetrated by rioters while Egyptian security did little to stop them. A reporter for Telemundo asked whether the U.S. could still consider Egypt an ally, to which Obama responded, "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy."
The White House later tried to diminish the import of that statement, but NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel pointed out that American policy in the region for decades has relied on two key Arab allies — Egypt and Saudi Arabia. If Obama's push to get Hosni Mubarak to abdicate has cost us one of those two pillars, "It makes one wonder, well, was it worth it? Was it worth supporting the Arab Spring?" Engel asked while police confronted protesters at the Cairo embassy in the background. "A very different scene here, a very different Egypt before, when the United States — President Obama — was supporting the demonstrators, President Mubarak was in power, and Egypt was very much an ally."
Meanwhile, demonstrations and violence aimed at American diplomatic missions continued to erupt in other Muslim nations, including Pakistan, where police killed one demonstrator and had to use tear gas to push a crowd back from the consulate in Karachi. The American Embassy in Beirut began burning its classified material as a precaution, something that the civil war next door had not prompted the mission to do before.
By Monday, the Washington Post reported that the Obama campaign would shift its focus to the economy, a stark about-face from just a fortnight earlier in Charlotte, N.C.
Have events changed the nature of the election from a focus primarily on domestic policy to a debate on Obama's handling of foreign policy? If more revelations of incompetence arise, perhaps — but at this point, that seems doubtful. When crises do erupt, they tend to take a long time to damage presidents; Jimmy Carter's polling looked solid in September 1980, despite 10 months of a hostage crisis in Iran that echoes in today's multiple diplomatic crises. Although foreign policy is the one area in which presidents have most authority, voters tend to grade incumbents on whether they have improved their economic situation. Voters want to know who lost the economic recovery more than they want to discuss who lost Egypt, because that has a lot more relevance to their immediate circumstances. But if the bungling continues at the White House and State Department, the risk rises that a perception of incompetence in the administration's foreign policy will reinforce an impression of incompetence in economic policy, and create the kind of narrative that made Carter a one-term president.