Tuesday night’s townhall-style debate between President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, included some incendiary words: “Death of a US ambassador”. The reference was to last month’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which left Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. Kerry Ladka, one of 82 Americans entitled to ask questions at the debate, wanted to know who denied additional security to the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Mr Obama winged it – by a combination of steely strength and stare-you-down honesty. But the issue is not going away in the last three weeks of the race.
Coincidentally, Hollywood has been on message too. Could last weekend’s release of a film about the 1979 siege of the US embassy in Tehran reawaken an especially tortured moment in the American national psyche? Could Argo, in which Ben Affleck plays a CIA specialist who engineers the escape of six American diplomats from Iran, be enough for Mr Obama to lose the November 6 election?
Probably not. Many younger voters will not remember the protracted humiliation of that period. More to the point, only 3 to 5 per cent of Americans traditionally regard foreign affairs as an important consideration when voting for president.
But the race for the White House has perceptibly narrowed and Mr Romney is calling the incumbent president the “second coming of Jimmy Carter”. It is a clever description, harking back to an inglorious moment in US history. It recalls the Carter administration’s incompetent machinations to free the hostages and its public shame in failing to do so. And it creates a subtle link in the collective consciousness between the Iranian hostage crisis and last month’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
The events in Libya and protests at US missions in Eqypt, Tunisia and Yemen have enabled the Republican Party to seize on foreign policy as an example of Mr Obama’s weakness. Suddenly, foreign affairs have assumed unusual importance in the election even though they were little discussed on the 2012 campaign trail.
This becomes especially significant when seen through the rear-view prism of the 1980 election. Ronald Reagan defeated Mr Carter because the incumbent struggled to explain a downturn in the economy at home and the hostage situation abroad. Fast forward to 2012 and Mr Obama is having to explain high unemployment and an ailing housing market to the electorate even as his rival uses the backdrop of Benghazi to label him soft on the Middle East, China and Russia.
The Romney camp is playing to the US need to feel secure at home by staying in command abroad. In the process, Mr Romney has articulated a decidedly alternative vision for foreign policy that invokes a more glorious time in US history. This is all to the good, except for one key point – it seems rooted in the 20th century, rather than the 21st.
Consider this. Seven months ago, he declared, in a widely derided comment, that Russia was “without question, our number one geopolitical foe”. He has said he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he unilaterally declared to be the capital of Israel, even though US policy says its status should be determined through negotiations. He has evoked the Cold War era with a promise to devote himself to “another American century”. He has proposed a more confrontational approach to China, Russia and other countries and argued for a new muscularity in America’s engagement with the world.
As Katrina vanden Heuvel commented in The Washington Post: “Romney’s world is one of special relationships, particularly with Britain, Israel and Poland … It’s also a world of special enmities – against Iran – and unending suspicions – about China and Russia. For Mr Romney, there are three types of countries: countries that are with us; countries that are against us; and countries that will be against us, sooner or later.”
How passé is that? The world has moved on. America no longer represents the ideal, the chance to have the “shining city on a hill”. No one beyond America’s borders buys the notion of US exceptionalism any more. A more muscular America, proffering advice at gunpoint, can only exacerbate anti-Americanism.
Contrast this with Mr Obama’s approach to the wider world. Combining a severely non-ideological pragmatism with an aggressive centrism, he removed combat troops from Iraq but has also unapologetically escalated the campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan and failed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. He has resisted getting sucked into Syria’s civil war but successfully secured a UN-authorised, Nato-led intervention to dislodge Muammar Qaddafi.
But it is Mr Obama’s cautious, calculated strategy in the Middle East and his refusal to continue his predecessor’s aggressive push to spread democracy in the Arab world that best marks out his internationalist worldview. Mr Obama is on record to say: “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other.”
His administration has not meddled in the Arab uprisings, busying itself instead with the nuts-and-bolts of building bridges to the new entities that are coming into being. This is why Mr Obama did not offer Egypt’s governing Muslim Brotherhood nostrums about democracy, but instead put in place financial assistance and a debt-relief deal. Mr Obama’s diplomats have quietly led an effort to bolster private investment and encourage good governance in Tunisia and other countries in the throes of change.
In the final analysis, none of this may matter much. In 1999, candidate George W Bush couldn’t name the leaders of India, Pakistan or Chechnya correctly. And he famously called the people of Greece, “Grecians”. But he won the election anyway. On voting day, the American people may not pay much attention to the foreign policy differences between Mr Obama and his rival. But they will notice the differences those policies make, once they have made their choice for president.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is the former editor of The Sunday Times of India