Romney has been widely judged to have failed...this week, not just by the Democrats and the media, but also by foreign policy experts and even many Republicans who are maintaining a tactful silence. By launching his ill-timed and inaccurate attempt on the administration's Middle East policy, he looked like he was trying to score political points while a crisis was unfolding in which Americans had been killed.
And potentially more damaging for his campaign in the long term, he has found himself battling not on the economy but in an area where Obama, the president who was in charge when Osama bin Laden was hunted down, is strongest. Polls show approval ratings 7% to 10% higher than Romney's on security, normally a Republican strength.
Behind the sound and fury over this week's event lie serious questions over the shape of Romney's foreign policy and the key members of the 40-strong team who are advising him on it. Over the last three days, various senior personnel have been doing the rounds of media studios to "clarify" Romney's position.
Dan Senor, one of the Romney's closest advisers on foreign policy, went on CNN on Wednesday to blame the Obama administration for the chaos in the Middle East. Another foreign policy adviser, Richard Williamson, who has been engaged in foreign affairs since the Reagan administration, told the Washington Post in an interview published Friday that the killings would not have happened if Romney had been president. In a separate interview on CNN Friday, Williamson said: "The world is better off when America leads."
But, as so often where Romney's foreign policy is concerned, little is offered in the way of detail. So even now it remains unclear where Romney stands.
Doe he see foreign affairs through the eyes of a businessman, in terms of goals and outcomes, as he suggested in his 2010 book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness?
In this scenario, he comes across as a pragmatist, a realist. This is backed up by his appointment of Bob Zoellick, the former World Bank president and relative moderate who, if Romney wins, will lead the foreign affairs transition team that will liaise with Obama administration between the election on 6 November and taking office on 21 January.
Or is Romney – part of one of the most inexperienced Republican tickets on foreign policy since before the second world war – being led by the hawks and neo-conservatives in his team? These include Senor and the Bush-appointed former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, a hawk who advocates bombing Iran.
David Rothkopf, a former member of the Clinton administration who has written a book about foreign policy and the White House, said journalists, analysts and others looking for clues as to Romney's foreign policy were confused by divisions inside his foreign policy team and attributed Romney's extreme views to his right-leaning staff.
But Rothkopf sees a different picture slowly beginning to emerge. Romney views Russia as America's number one enemy, has threatened a trade war against China, lined up behind Israel over a possible attack on Iran and suggested the Palestinians are an inferior culture. It is an aggressive foreign policy stance, well to the right of Obama's.
"After a series of such views and particularly his attack on Obama policies in the immediate aftermath of the killings in Benghazi, it is now clearer that the driving and unifying force behind his statements is the candidate himself," Rothkopf said.
"He now has a body of statements to look at that suggests strongly he is no moderate. He leans hard right, toward the neo-cons, toward American exceptionalism, toward policies much like those that failed and fell into disrepute during the George W Bush era."
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