On Libya, has Romney learned to hold his fire?

On Libya, has Romney learned to hold his fire?

Earlier this month, when Mitt Romney swiftly denounced President Obama’s handling of the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya as news of the deadly Benghazi assault was still developing, the Republican challenger was showered with criticism from both sides of the aisle.

"Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go," conservative columnist Peggy Noonan argued. A Pew poll released last week found that 45 percent of respondents who followed news about the attacks approved of Obama’s handling of the crisis, while only 26 percent supported Romney’s condemnation of the president’s actions. 

In a provocative column today, the Washington Post‘s Charles Krauthammer argues that Romney should issue a sweeping indictment of Obama’s foreign policy in light of the president’s response to the violence in Libya, especially as the administration shifts its position on whether the incident constituted a terrorist attack.

Earlier this week, Romney briefly criticized Obama for referring to the Mideast unrest as "bumps in the road" and for not classifying the Libya assault as a terrorist attack. But when it comes to foreign policy critiques, Romney has spent much more time this week on pending defense cuts and unfair Chinese trade practices. Conservative pundits and the Republican National Committee (and now even some Democrats) have been far more relentless in hammering Obama on Libya.

Here’s Krauthammer on Romney’s missed opportunity on Libya:

Here was a chance to make the straightforward case about where Obama’s feckless approach to the region’s tyrants has brought us, connecting the dots of the disparate attacks as a natural response of the more virulent Islamist elements to a once-hegemonic power in retreat. Instead, Romney did two things:

He issued a two-sentence critique of the initial statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on the day the mob attacked. The critique was not only correct but vindicated when the State Department disavowed the embassy statement. However, because the critique was not framed within a larger argument about the misdirection of U.S. Middle East policy, it could be – and was – characterized as a partisan attack on the nation’s leader at a moment of national crisis.

Two weeks later at the Clinton Global Initiative, Romney did make a foreign-policy address. Here was his opportunity. What did he highlight? Reforming foreign aid.

Yes, reforming foreign aid! A worthy topic for a chin-pulling joint luncheon of the League of Women Voters and the Council on Foreign Relations. But as the core of a challenger’s major foreign-policy address amid a Lehman-like collapse of the Obama Doctrine?

I’m not sure I agree with Krauthammer’s critique of Romney’s foreign aid speech; the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) wasn’t exactly the right forum to proclaim the spectacular failure of the Obama doctrine. Obama, after all, devoted his CGI address not to championing his counterterrorism record or celebrating his commitment to ending America’s wars but rather to discussing human trafficking.

But I also wonder whether Krauthammer’s larger assessment is accurate. Is Romney’s decision not to seize on the mounting controversy over the Libya attack a strategic blunder — a sign that Mitt has a self-destructive preference for small ball? Or has the GOP candidate heeded Noonan’s advice and concluded that silence is the best policy as the administration contends with a gathering storm of criticism?

A Fox News poll released on Friday shows that 39 percent of registered voters approve of the Obama administration’s handling of the situation in Libya — down from 48 percent in a Fox News survey in August. That’s a trend the Romney campaign may not want to meddle with.