How will the crisis in Libya and the Middle East play out politically?

Dr. Louis Perron
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Some see the events starting to unfold with the tragic death of four diplomats in Libya as a major problem for President Obama. This view is stressed, unsurprisingly, especially by conservative circles who try to frame the situation as though Obama is losing control. But also more moderate sources, like the German Spiegel see trouble in the making for Obama and publish this Saturday an article with the title “Obamas Middle-East Policies in Ruins”.

I disagree with the notion that these events have a negative impact on the Obama campaign. On the contrary, I think that Obama can actually benefit from this politically. Every crisis is an opportunity for an incumbent to show himself as a man in charge and in action.

Foreign Politics has so far not been an issue in the general election. The debate has been dominated by the economy. Obama must welcome this sudden shift of focus decidedly because compared to Mitt Romney, he does have solid credentials in foreign politics. An article of the New York Times published last Saturday confirms this by citing officials from the Obama campaign who stated, that they were “glad to be challenged on what they consider the comfortable territory of foreign politics”. Mitt Romney is still lacking credibility on the international stage as a poll conducted by CBS and the New York Times confirms. Only 40% think that Romney would do a better Job than Obama in foreign politics while 47% believe the opposite.

Clearly it is easier for an incumbent President than for a challenger to respond to a tragedy like the one caused by the protests in Libya and throughout the Middle East. He can (and has to) present himself as a statesman, as commander in chief and the leader of the free world. A challenger candidate on the other hand is quickly accused of taking advantage by politicizing a tragedy. Romney’s initial reaction to the situation, however, was so clumsy and imprudent that he was criticized for it even within his own party. Instead of offering the president his “full support in such difficult times” like the customary response would be in such a situation, Romney launched a full flagged attack on Obama and accused him of being too soft and in sympathy with the attackers. Clearly, Romney does not understand his own poll ratings. Both his favourability and his rating on handling foreign policy are not a basis to attack Obama.  As a result, Romney now is accused of trying to get personal political gain out of the tragedy.

Also: Romney’s allegations of Obamas losing control seem somewhat farfetched at the present time. It can hardly be painted as Obama’s fault if a number of radical individuals break out in violence in a country that has just overthrown its previous government and is full to the brink with weapons. For Obama, things could only become uncomfortable if, for example, the protests somehow spread onto U.Ss soil or keep on going for a very long time causing more casualties in other embassies.

All things considered, the Romney campaign should try to shift the focus back to economic issues as soon and with as much force as possible. This is clearly the issue where Obama is vulnerable. Romney would win if he could make the case that he can do a better job on jobs than Obama.

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