HAVING supported the overthrow of totalitarian regimes in the Middle East, Barack Obama is now experiencing the backdraft. November’s presidential election was meant to be a predictable duel on domestic issues. But, with the ransacking of the US embassy in Cairo and the murder of the American ambassador and three others in Benghazi, it has suddenly made foreign affairs something more than a peripheral issue.
For Obama, the tragedy brings with it serious political risk. With a still struggling economy, the President is often compared to Jimmy Carter, one of his Democratic predecessors, who not only failed to fight against the effects of inflation and unemployment, but who oversaw US humiliation at the hands of the mullahs in Iran. The fact that the President accused Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, of “having a tendency to shoot first and aim later” was unfortunate. Carter said the exact same of Ronald Reagan. The scenes in the Middle East over the past few days will inevitably draw more comparisons, and help Republicans who have portrayed the President as an apologist-in-chief; expressing regret at US actions abroad, while doing little to celebrate the country.
As Americans rally together and express deep sorrow, they will also emote a sense of vulnerability and weakness. Before news had spread of the death of the US ambassador in Libya, Romney’s campaign immediately sought to capitalise on the decision of the embassy in Cairo to release a statement that was “akin to apology,” excusing the actions of the rioters on the grounds that they were motivated by a disgraceful film promoted by a US pastor.
Although the administration has sought to distance itself from the embassy’s remarks, rightly saying that even a vile film doesn’t justify violence, “the buck,” as Harry Truman put it, “stops here.”
But most damaging of all is the revelation that, throughout the course of his administration, Obama has been “skipping” intelligence briefings – attending just 43.8 per cent. As the Washington Post highlighted, Obama’s predecessor seldom missed any. This information, released by the Government Accountability Institute, threatens to portray Obama as a President more concerned about Hollywood than Hezbollah and Hamas. In fact, the President has held more fundraisers than intelligence briefings. Republicans will likely exploit this mercilessly.
With the embassy in Yemen now also under attack, copycats could shift attention away from the economy, but also make Obama seem rudderless. After the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Obama swore he wouldn’t “spike the ball” with overzealous celebrations. It’s questionable whether the President has stayed true to his word on this but, right now, rather than spiking the ball, Obama looks like he took his eye off it.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. Follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt