US Affairs: Will Libya be a game changer?

Foreign policy is back on the agenda and the Obama-Netanyahu spat has been cut back to size.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tough 390 (photo credit: Jason Reed/Reuters)
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tough 390
(photo credit: Jason Reed/Reuters)
WASHINGTON – For those who saw the leaking of word that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed to obtain a White House meeting during his trip to the US later this month as an attempt to meddle in US election politics, that effort was set back, emphatically and tragically, by the violence in Libya and Egypt that erupted late Tuesday.
Hours before the news that four US diplomats had been killed in anti-American riots, the Middle East-related chatter in Washington was devoted to conflicting reports about whether or not President Barack Obama had rejected a request from the Prime Minister’s Office for a meeting, either in New York, where both men will be attending the opening of the United Nation’s General Assembly – though on different days – or back in DC.
Regardless of the differences in the accounts (Israeli sources said a meeting had been requested in either city, while the White House denied that any request had been made), the upshot was that no meeting was on the books – the first time Netanyahu has been set to visit the US during his current term in office without meeting Obama.
Many have speculated that the news about the lack of a meeting – leaked on the Israeli side – was done by a peeved Netanyahu looking to cause trouble for Obama as he heads into the thick of the general presidential campaign.
Netanyahu and various Obama administration officials have engaged for two weeks now in a nasty back-and-forth over red lines on Iran, with the PM stridently declaring on Tuesday morning that, "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had declined to lay down just such a red line earlier in the week.
Whatever the motivation, public attention to the fact that a meeting wouldn’t be happening was only likely to intensify the sense that there is a rift between the two allies and that the president has been snubbing Netanyahu – developments that would only further alienate pro-Israel voters the White House has been looking to court.
But just as that narrative was taking hold – and the White House was trying to alter it with a late-night phone call between Obama and Netanyahu Tuesday night, hours after the row over the non-meeting erupted – that storyline was subsumed by headlines of a much more serious nature.
Four American diplomats had been killed by an attack on the US consulate in Libya at the hands of an angered crowd. Anti-American protesters had also gathered around the embassy in Cairo. An anti-Islam film produced by an American in California has been pointed to as the cause for the violence, but there have also been suggestions that the unrest was planned, coinciding, as it did, with September 11.
However much a Bibi snub might have caused Obama some campaign headaches, the developments in Libya and Cairo will reverberate much more.
Cable news channels were dominated on Wednesday by the American deaths, with Obama and Clinton delivering unscheduled remarks on the incidents that morning, followed by the president visiting the State Department in a show of solidarity with the American diplomatic corps.
And repeatedly on those news channels, talking heads could be heard bringing up the newfound relevance of foreign policy to the presidential campaign, which until now had kept international issues low, low, low on the priority list.
The events could help or hurt either candidate, with – as usual – much of the verdict being in the eye of the partisan beholder.
But the attacks on American citizens coming on September 11, in countries where the US has defended the interests of locals, over outrage at a film made by a private US citizen exercising his right to free speech, create an opening for the Republican challenger to go at Obama on a subject that has been a perceived strength; until now, Obama has reaped political dividends for having killed Osama bin Laden and keeping the US safe from a repeat attack.
The fact that the first American words on the anger roused by the film mostly denounced the film itself didn’t help.
As the crowd amassed outside the US embassy in Cairo, but apparently before any violence there or in Libya was known to have occurred, the embassy sent out a message that it “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions” and that “we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Unfortunately for Romney, when he tried to press this advantage, he triggered a backlash for politicizing a national tragedy.
Romney’s first response to the incident was a statement that, in addition to condemning the attacks, blasted the president for the Cairo message (which the White House subsequently disavowed): “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
He was jumped on not only by Democrats but also by many Republicans (though others in the GOP camp defended him for appropriately raising questions about Obama’s national security stance).
In the end, the incident has underscored what both parties depict as each man’s perceived shortcomings on handling international issues: for Obama, the accusation that he doesn’t stand up strongly enough for American values and interests, and for Romney, the charge that he does not have the thoughtfulness and discernment needed for diplomacy on the international stage.
Though both critiques are partisan in their origins, their resonance with American voters of all stripes will soon be evident on the campaign trail, where the debate has shifted outward, at least for now, from purely domestic concerns.
The brouhaha over the Netanyahu meeting might not have had the intended – or at least the expected – impact on the campaign that it seemed it might have had at first, but that doesn’t mean the Middle East won’t have other ways of making itself a factor in the presidential race.