“It now appears that there was no demonstration outside the Libyan embassy … the compound was raided by a group of heavily armed men …”

Well, things could be going worse for President Obama this week. For example, Vice-President Joe Biden could break down at a rally and say: “He’s a Kenyan Muslim! I can’t lie any more! The fake birth was organised by the Trilateral Commission! The Bilderberg group altered every newspaper archive in Hawaii to insert the birth notices! I didn’t knowwww!” Or, Michelle Obama’s purse could fall open, and her membership card for the Workers Party of North Korea could fall out. Obama could congratulate Hugo Chavez on his recent victory, and commit to full socialism across both Americas … and so on, and on.

But barring such, things couldn’t be worse for team Blue these days. By now, half-a-dozen post-debate polls show Mitt Romney had regained much of the ground lost after his notorious “47%” remarks. The most striking poll has been that of Pew research, which shows Romney leading by 4%, 49-45%.

That poll has led the news cycle for the past 24 hours, but has been greeted with scepticism from both sides — since a poll by the same organisation two weeks ago had Obama leading by 8%, 52-44%. The earlier Pew result gave Obama an excessive lead in poll averaging two weeks ago; the new poll is probably skewing things to Romney a little. Most likely he has cut Obama’s lead to an average of 1% — a wafer-thin margin, but less subject to a margin-of-error rule than any one poll. With Romney having to get seven of nine swing states to gain the White House, the advantage still lies with Obama — although the odds of a split result, a majority in the electoral college for one party, versus an overall majority, heighten considerably.

Now, having landed blows on Obama’s economic record in the first debate, Romney is going after his foreign policy record. It’s a tricky area for the Republicans. Overwhelmingly, the country is focused inwards at the moment — in the wake of a financial crisis and a recovery that is lukewarm, to say the least, the era in which Americans could be obsessed by a leading role in the world seems, to many, to be the product of a time long ago. Most people want America’s involvement in the world to be minimised. They’re glad they’re out of Iraq, and they’d like to be out of Afghanistan. The “Arab Spring”, with its contradictory results, has queered any simplistic notion that the US could play a clear and simple role in the region’s transition towards, well, being less chaotic.

Romney’s message — delivered in a speech to the Virginia Military Academy yesterday — has been a more minimal one than the neo-con “American century” idea that any given country could be converted to baseball and 7-Elevens at the drop of a few bombs. Instead, it’s an older idea of forward defence — that Obama and the Democrats have made America less feared and respected in the world, and thus put Americans at risk.

Until a few weeks ago, they had very little evidence to pin this charge on Obama. For the last few years he’s been running a boutique war, using extraterritorial drone strikes to wipe out anyone remotely in a position to lead al-Qaeda, or numerous offshoots — as well as their wives and children — the centrepiece of which has been the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Had that been achieved in the mid-2000s, the event would have generated ticker-tape parades, and a guaranteed second term. Now, it’s like a retro, the re-appearance of a half-forgotten character in a popular drama. The same goes for the Libyan adventure: having assisted a revolution without a single American casualty, and forged a link with a country so great that thousands of people will demonstrate against the killing of a US ambassador, Obama could reasonably say that this was the way to do foreign soft-power and nation-building.

But now, who cares? The region, ricocheting between cold-war era strongmen of Left and Right, and chaotic popular/liberal/Islamist movements, now seems to many to be an incomprehensible mish-mash, run by people who would hate America under any conditions. Many Americans want to seal it off, and stay well away from it, and Republican notions of “respect” and “world leadership” appeal more to the manifest destiny fanatics on the Republican Right than it does to average Americans.

But that was before the manifest destiny fanatics in the Islamist movement decided to invade the Libyan embassy on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, and murder an ambassador, in circumstances which were conveyed in three different ways by the White House. What now seems clear is that demonstrations concerning the release of an anti-Islamic film — or a trailer thereof, for a film that may not exist — had very little to do with the wave of violence that swept up US embassies in the region. Or they may have. Or they may have elsewhere but not in Benghazi, etc. But the fact a US ambassador could be killed with impunity rather makes Romney’s case for him — that people have so little fear of US retribution that they will do anything. That doesn’t really add up of course — a movement whose principal tactic is the suicide bomber doesn’t have much fear as such.

But where Obama may have a problem is in any record of lax security at US embassies around the world on the 9/11 anniversary. That would have been a decision made at a level lower than the presidency, but such an excuse is not going to play if it can be argued that Obama’s conciliatory attitude towards the Arab world influenced the conduct of embassy security. Now the State Department has contradicted the White House’s version of events saying that it never believed that there was a demonstration around the embassy — as opposed to a concerted attack.

State Department officials are due to appear before a congressional hearing tomorrow, which may yield fresh material for Romney. If the Republicans can show that reasonable caution around embassy security was wantonly ignored, then the Obama administration can be portrayed as hopelessly naïve, and an old right-wing narrative of dangerous softness can be vindicated. Should that occur, going into next week’s town hall-style debate, then Obama will be boxed in on both economic and foreign policy matters. And those Pew numbers may not look like such an outlier.

Peter Fray

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