Its candidate having blundered into unfamiliar foreign-policy territory by accusing President Barack Obama of apologizing in the current Mideast crisis, the Romney campaign has now bizarrely compounded the political misstep by throwing more fuel on the fire.
Rich Williamson, a foreign affairs adviser to Mitt Romney who also served Presidents Reagan and both Bushes, was wheeled out Thursday to suggest that if his candidate had been in the Oval Office at the time of the embassy protests and attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Libya, they might not have occurred.
"There's a pretty compelling story that if you had President Romney, you'd be in a different situation," Mr. Williamson offered, also observing, "For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we've had an American ambassador assassinated." He charged that in all three countries "the respect for America has gone down, there's not a sense of American resolve, and we can't even protect sovereign American property."
Mr. Williamson, a former Bush assistant secretary of state for international operations, also pounced on an Obama statement that the new Egyptian government was neither an ally nor an enemy but "a new government trying to find its way" and "a work in progress." To that, Mr. Williamson said, "The president can't even keep track of who's our ally or not. This is amateur hour."
The allegation was a direct assault on the Obama administration's claim that, under the president's leadership, America's international standing had risen sharply, with a return to a multilateral foreign policy from the essentially go-in-alone policy of George W. Bush in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Mr. Romney himself, back on the campaign trail in Virginia, toned down his own criticism but argued, "As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we're at the mercy of events instead of shaping events, and a strong America is essential to shape events."
The ability of any American president to avoid or interrupt acts of violence from whatever source against "sovereign American property" was demonstrated in spades on Sept. 11, 2001 in the ninth month of the junior President Bush's administration. The one event he did shape, the slapping together of a "coalition of the willing" to oust Saddam Hussein, plunged the United States into a costly war of choice with continuing ramifications.
Mr. Romney's verbal muscle-flexing apparently is an effort to boost his stock with the conservative base of the Republican Party, which traditionally has argued for an ever-stronger American military defense. At the core of the philosophy of the so-called Vulcans who led the junior Bush's foreign policy — including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — was unchallenged U.S. armed superiority in the world.
Mr. Obama has maintained that superiority, to the distress of many liberal Democrats who contend the American armed forces are excessively muscle-bound, and that the huge Pentagon budget can be safely cut and money diverted to meet neglected needs at home.
So it is politically surprising that Mr. Romney would pivot in the presidential campaign to the foreign-policy arena, in which Mr. Obama would appear to hold most of the cards, and that his strategists seem to be upping the ante. It smacks either of political desperation or a gamble that the traditional Republican trump card as the party of military superiority will prevail again in November.
But why would Mr. Romney and his team make such a pivot away from the one issue — the punishing, stagnant state of the economy at home — on which up to now they have relied so heavily to convince the voters to oust Mr. Obama? The supposed strength of the Romney-Ryan ticket is their ability to speed the recovery, not to return American foreign policy to greater world dominance.
By contrast, Mr. Obama now has nearly four years of world diplomacy behind him, with Vice President Joe Biden, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman at his side, and the death of Osama bin Laden as a prime accomplishment.
If Messrs. Romney and Ryan hope to move into the White House in January, they would be much better off laying out their specific plans for the economic recovery.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.