If Republican nominee Mitt Romney flubbed his first major foreign-policy gambit, Democrats should be careful about gloating too much. The volatile political climate in Egypt, Libya and other Arab Spring countries is a far bigger test for President Barack Obama and his kinder, gentler foreign-policy approach. And should the violent anti-American protests persist, U.S. voters could come to prefer Mr. Romney's tough talk.
Mr. Obama came to office promising "a new beginning" between the United States and the Muslim world. Yet, the conciliatory talk did not seem to win the United States many new friends as the Arab Spring unfolded. If anything, U.S. influence in a region critical to American interests has declined. The consequences could be far-reaching and, unless the protests die down soon, Mr. Obama could be on defensive for the rest of the campaign.
"The Obama administration had a view that if only we showed the Arab and Muslim worlds that we cared, things would change," noted Georgetown University international affairs professor Robert Lieber. "But public opinion shows that the United States is no more popular in large chunks of the Middle East that it was under George W. Bush."
If the Arab Spring continues to foment anti-American sentiment, Mr. Obama may have to adopt a more hard-line approach – such as threatening to withhold aid to Egypt and backing the Muslim Brotherhood's secular opposition. It would not be his first about-face. He wound up embracing many of Mr. Bush's antiterrorism policies after campaigning against them in 2008. The prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open and Mr. Obama has ordered more drone attacks on terrorist targets in his first term than Mr. Bush did in two.
Rhetorically at least, Mr. Obama has already started to embrace the tenets of American exceptionalism, the idea the United States has a special mission to spread its values around the world.
"We believe that [basic freedoms] are not just American rights. We believe they are universal aspirations," Mr. Obama said at a campaign rally in Colorado on Thursday. "That's our light to the world. And our task as the most powerful nation on Earth is to defend and protect and advance our people, but also to defend and protect and advance those values at home and around the world."
It was a striking new tone from a President who, earlier in his term, said: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
The shift was no coincidence. If Mr. Romney was largely seen as bungling his response to the protests, at least one aspect of his critique of the administration's conduct had the Obama campaign worried enough to beef up Mr. Obama's campaign speeches.
"Apology for America's values is never the right course," Mr. Romney said after the U.S. embassy in Cairo released a statement condemning the anti-Muslim video that sparked the protests.
The comment echoed Republican accusations that Mr. Obama, eager to build bridges with the Arab world, has been too sheepish about promoting American values.
Mr. Obama's national security successes – killing Osama bin Laden and ending the war in Iraq – have so far insulated him against such attacks. Most voters still give him high marks for his handling of foreign policy. But that could change if the President's largely "hands off" approach toward the Arab Spring allows anti-American forces to gain traction in the Middle East.
In his seminal mid-2009 speech in Cairo, the very city where the anti-American protests began this week, Mr. Obama did not apologize for America, as Mr. Romney charges. But unlike Mr. Bush, he did admit that the United States is not always right. By historical standards, that was a major concession.
"No system of government can and should be imposed upon one nation by any other," Mr. Obama said. "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone."
Yet, despite the fact that the U.S. had pressed the Egyptian military to speed up the transfer of power to Egypt's democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi this week put pandering to an anti-U.S population before nurturing a strategic partnership with the U.S. And for all his early overtures toward Iran, Mr. Obama does not appear to have stopped that country's march toward nuclear capability.
Meanwhile, the strongest American ally in the region feels forsaken, driving U.S.-Israel relations to arguably a historic low. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week warned the United States that, because of its failure to send Iran an ultimatum, it had "no moral right to place a red light" before a potential military strike by Israel.
Mr. Obama made "the tacit assumption that the major determinant of how other countries act toward us is primarily a reaction to what the United States says and does, rather than primarily [a function of] their own history, ideology, beliefs, interests and the personalities and choices of their leaders," said Prof. Lieber, a former foreign policy adviser to Bill Clinton. "The administration bent over backwards for two years to engage Iran, when it was clear that it wasn't us, it was them."
Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University international affairs professor and a national security adviser to the Obama administration, rejects the Republican criticism of Mr. Obama's approach to foreign policy.
"Their version of leadership is a lot of bluster. It's more about rhetoric than results," Prof. Jentleson insisted. "There is a basic understanding in the Arab and Muslim world that this President and administration are trying to work in a relationship of mutual respect and trust."
That may be true. But for now, Mr. Obama's approach is being put to the test.