GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney will hit President Obama during their foreign policy debate with the ancient political zinger, what did he know and when did he know it about Libya. The GOP's attack line is that Obama botched the response to the terror attack on the American embassy in Libya in part to protect his claim that he destroyed al-Qaeda, and in greater part to mask his alleged rudderless, muddled Middle East policy.
None of this holds water. Obama vigorously condemned the embassy attack as an act of terror. As any responsible president would do, he made no saber rattling statements about the attack until all of the intelligence reports conclusively pointed to a systematic, planned attack, and identified who the likely attackers were. The final report found that the attack was not masterminded by al-Qaeda, and indeed found no verifiable link to the group at all.
But the Libyan hit on Obama is only a part of a larger GOP strategy -- that's to try again to sully Obama as weak, vacillating, and too conciliatory to America's enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere. The GOP attack is not new.
For three decades before the 2008 election the GOP reveled in the monopoly that it had with the public as the tough, take-no-prisoners guardian of America's foreign policy and national security. It touted America's unchallenged military arsenal, its crushing military budget, and the unabashed willingness to play the role of global policeman. Much of the public bought into this masterful deception of Democratic presidents as weak, indecisive, and always willing to compromise America's security and cede the upper hand to America's enemies.
GOP presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., and especially George W. Bush in 2004 in his reelection fight with Democratic presidential foe Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, used this ploy against their Democratic opponents. GOP presidential rival John McCain was a big beneficiary of this tact. During the 2008 presidential election, he consistently got far higher poll marks than then Democratic challenger Obama on his handling of foreign policy, national security, and especially toughness in the war against terrorism.
It seemed easy at the time to make the charge that Obama was a greenhorn on foreign policy and national security issues since he had no real experience in that arena. But appearances were grossly misleading, Obama had laid out detailed plans on how to deal with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Middle East policy matters, the European allies, the Russians on disarmament issues, and China's growing economic and military threat.
Obama had to do two added things to dispel the notion that he would fall apart the first time he was hit with a major foreign policy crisis. One pained many liberal and progressive supporters. And that was to embrace some aspects of Bush's foreign and national security policy positions which entailed reauthorizing virtually all the provisions of the Patriot Act, delaying the close of Guantanamo, pressing the war in Afghanistan, giving firm and vocal support of Israel, and as tough a stance as possible on Iran's looming nuclear capacity. At the same time, he had to balance this with his public pledge to end the failed, flawed, and unpopular Iraq war. That, and the killing of Osama bin Laden, the attack on the Somali pirates, and the tough prosecution of the Afghan war, was more than enough to dispel the public's doubts about his resolve on foreign policy and national security.
The second thing that Obama had to do was to try and effect a rapprochement with the Muslim world, increasingly turbulent, unstable, and volatile. At the same time, he could not appear to kowtow to Islamic extremists.
This juggling act would pose a nerve racking challenge to any GOP or Democrat occupant of the Oval Office. The tight walk demanded that a president be flexible, deft, and attuned to fast changing conditions and players in the Middle East.
Obama's foreign policy successes forced GOP leaders into pained puzzlement. Here was a Democratic president that got results in the war against terrorism, and more galling consistently got high marks from European, Chinese and Russian leaders for his tact and diplomacy. The Libyan embassy attack was just the hook that the GOP was desperately looking for to hammer Obama with the charge that his as foreign policy initiatives were adrift, and who was setting America up for a fall. Romney, of course, will endlessly repeat this mantra on Obama's foreign policy. Obama's stout rejoinder and defense won't stop the drumbeat GOP finger pointed at him for his alleged muddle and supposed deceit on the Libyan embassy tragedy. Fortunately, Obama has scored too many triumphs for the GOP's Libya hit on him to have any chance of bruising him.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.