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The Election 2012 Weekly Report: Fault lines and red lines

The embassy aftermath The escalating chaos in the Middle East sparked by an anti-Islamic video spilled over into the presidential campaign this week. On Tuesday night, shortly after protesters had stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo and reports had emerged that a U.S. diplomat had been killed in Libya, Mitt Romney issued a statement saying, ...


The embassy aftermath

The escalating chaos in the Middle East sparked by an anti-Islamic video spilled over into the presidential campaign this week. On Tuesday night, shortly after protesters had stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo and reports had emerged that a U.S. diplomat had been killed in Libya, Mitt Romney issued a statement saying, "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." Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also tweeted, "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic."

The criticism was prompted by messages put out by the U.S. embassy in Cairo before that compound had been stormed, denouncing the offending film. The Obama administration disavowed the messages from the embassy, which were reportedly published without State Department approval, and Obama campaign spokesman Ben Labolt fired back late on Tuesday night: "We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack."   

On Wednesday morning, after it had been reported that four Americans had been killed in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Romney again criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the events, accusing the White House of sending "mixed signals." "I think it’s a terrible course for America to apologize for our values," Romney said, referring to the original Cairo embassy statements. 

Barack Obama criticized Romney personally in an interview with CBS, saying, "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first, aim later.  And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that."

The Romney campaign has continued to step up its attacks, with advisor Richard Williamson telling the Washington Post, "There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation…. For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we’ve had an American ambassador assassinated."

Obama has also has his own trouble with messaging this week. In an interview with the Spanish-language Telemundo network on Saturday, he said of the Egyptian government, "I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy. They’re a new government that is trying to find its way."

The White House walked back the statement later with spokesman Tommy Vietor telling Foreign Policy, "Egypt is longstanding and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation by supporting Egypt’s transition to democracy and working with the new government." 

The thin red line

The Obama administration this week rejected calls by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to spell out a specific "red line" that were Iran to cross on its nuclear program would trigger an action in response. "We need some ability for the president to have decision-making room…. We have a red line, which is a nuclear weapon. We’re committed to that red line," a senior official told the New York Times.

Facing criticism at home, Netanyahu denied that his frequent criticism of the Obama administration on Iran was intended to sway the election. "That’s nonsense, because what’s guiding me is not the election in the United States but the centrifuges in Iran," he told the newspaper Hayom.

In an interview on Friday morning, Romney told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, "My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon." When asked if that meant he had the same "red line" as Obama, Romney — who has frequently criticized the Obama administration’s handling of Iran, replied "yes."

Shiny objects

According to a recent CNN poll — conducted before this week’s events — Obama holds a 12 point advantage over Romney when voters are asked which candidate they trust to handle foreign policy. "For the first time in a very long time, a Democrat has a clear advantage on national security issues," campaign advisor Michele Flournoy told Buzzfeed, responding to the poll. 

Romney foreign policy advisor Robert O’Brien accused the Obama campaign of trying to distract voters from a sagging economy."It doesn’t surprise me that they’re raising foreign policy because it’s another distraction from the Administration’s terrible economic record… They’re going from one shiny object to the next." Another advisor made a similar comment to Politico, defending the lack of discussion of national security at the Republican convention. "This is an economy election and if he gets off on foreign policy or war policy, he’s playing on the president’s turf," he said.

Weekly Standard editor and leading neoconservative commentator William Kristol criticized the statement, writing, "What does it say when a Romney adviser concedes "foreign policy or war policy" as "the president’s turf"? Can one imagine a Reagan adviser saying such a thing in 1980?"

Romney v. Beijing

The Romney campaign launched an ad this week accusing the Obama administration of failing to prevent U.S. jobs from being lost to China by not standing up to its deflationary currency practices. In a speech on Thursday, Romney said that Obama "had the chance year after year to label China a currency manipulator, but he hasn’t done so" and promised again to "label China the currency manipulator they are on the first day."

An editorial in a state-run Chinese news agency on Friday fired back, calling Romney’s remarks "as false as they are foolish" and saying it is "ironic that a considerable portion of this China-battering politician’s wealth was actually obtained by doing business with Chinese companies before he entered politics."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is heading to China this weekend amid escalating tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Security briefings

On Sept. 10, Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush advisor Marc Thiessen wrote a column criticizing Obama for not receiving regular Presidential Daily Briefs (PDBs) from his intelligence advisors. Citing numbers from the Government Accountability Institute, Thiessen wrote, "During his first 1,225 days in office, Obama attended his PDB just 536 times — or 43.8 percent of the time. During 2011 and the first half of 2012, his attendance became even less frequent — falling to just over 38 percent. By contrast, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush almost never missed his daily intelligence meeting."

In a follow-up column, Thiessen accused Obama of skipping his briefing the day after the attack in Benghazi to attend a fundraiser in Las Vegas. Vietor responded to Thiessen: "As I’ve told you every time you ask, the President gets his PDB every day…. Unlike your former boss, he has it delivered to his residence in the morning and not briefed to him."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney even entered the debate, telling the Daily Caller through a spokesperson,  "If President Obama were participating in his intelligence briefings on a regular basis then perhaps he would understand why people are so offended at his efforts to take sole credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden."

The foreign vote

Two polls this week made clear that Romney should be glad he’s not running for president in Europe. According to a YouGov poll of more than 12,000 people across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, and China, only around one in 20 had a positive view of the Republican candidate. In Britain, 47 percent said a Romney victory would make them feel less favorable toward the United States, and only 3 percent said that they would feel more favorable. Respondents from the Middle East were more ambivalent about the election. Another poll by the German Marshall Fund found that 39 percent of Europeans had a negative view of Romney, compared to 23 percent positive.

Advisors on the move:

ABC reports that senior Romney foreign-policy advisor Dan Senor, who had been traveling with vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, has been pulled off the campaign trail to handle "foreign policy developments" from campaign headquarters in Boston. Senor’s role in the campaign had drawn attention during Romney’s trip to Israel in August.

The latest from FP:

Aaron David Miller looks at the troubled relationship between Barack and Bibi.  

David Rothkopf wonders when Democrats started sounding like Rudy Giuliani when talking about terrorism.

Will Inboden argues that foreign-policy bipartisanship is a thing of the past.

Kori Schake says Romney got national security right in his convention speech.

Stay tuned to The Cable and Passport for the latest from the campaign trail.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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