The Republican presidential nominee has taken a lot of heat for his response to this week's events in Libya and Egypt, including from us. But it's worth taking a second look, because this week's misfire is symptomatic of a deeper - but still fixable - failing in Mitt Romney's campaign.
Anyone who's been reading this page over the past nearly four years knows we think there's ample room for fair criticism of President Obama's foreign-policy record. From Russia to Bahrain to Egypt, he has failed to stand up for human rights and democracy at key moments. His passivity in Syria has allowed a bad situation to get worse. The Arab Spring presented dangers but also opportunities for American policy that Obama was slow to seize and has been too hesitant to follow up on. We think the United States will pay a price for his failure to forge a stronger postwar relationship with Iraq, and his setting of deadlines in Afghanistan increased the risks there for U.S. interests.
Romney has made some of these points, and we would not expect him to re-argue them all, politics be damned; obviously a majority of Americans do not share our views on a number of them. But he should be presenting a broad, positive vision of how and where he would lead the United States in the world. If he thinks Obama is betting on and therefore accelerating the decline of U.S. leadership, don't just call him nasty names ("Jimmy Carter," for example), but explain to the American people why U.S. leadership is sustainable and necessary in the coming decades.
Instead, there have been too many cheap shots and miscues that have only called attention to Romney's inexperience in foreign affairs. This week's accusation that the Obama administration sympathizes with rioters called to mind Romney's over-the-top attack in May when U.S. officials were in the midst of delicate negotiations in Beijing to win freedom for human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng. "If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration," Romney said, shortly before Chen flew to New York City.
His jeering at Russia has seemed unbecoming for a great power ("Under my administration . . . Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone"), and his threats of a trade war with China are both unconvincing and unproductive. He appealed to the worst in the American people when he failed to stand up for religious tolerance by condemning the bigoted anti-Muslim movie trailer that incited riots this week, even as he rightly condemned the violence itself.
It's not too late for Romney to offer a more positive program; he showed signs of doing so during a calm and reasoned interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Friday. Romney spoke of the importance of maintaining a friendship with Egypt while insisting that the country honor its treaty with Israel, respect minority rights and protect the U.S. Embassy. He cited the First Amendment right of Americans to make ugly or biased movies but also said, "The idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong. And I wish people wouldn't do it."
That's a start. As in his domestic policy, Romney needs to offer more substance and fewer slogans in foreign affairs. Otherwise, he's unlikely to unseat Obama, nor would he deserve to.