If you thought Mitt Romney was the only presidential candidate whose problems were piling up in the final stretch of the 2012 election campaign, think again.
From Middle East upheaval to the troubled Afghan war effort to a more assertive Russia, President Barack Obama is facing pressures that threaten to chip away at a foreign policy record his aides hoped would be immune to Republican attack.
The White House is increasingly concerned but isn’t hitting the panic button, yet. Administration officials are heartened by Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s own recent foreign policy stumbles and doubt Obama’s critics will gain traction in a campaign focused mainly on the U.S. economy.
As a result, when Obama speaks inside the cavernous U.N. General Assembly hall on Tuesday exactly six weeks before the U.S. election, he will seek to reassure American voters as well as world leaders he is on top of the latest global challenges. But he won’t propose any new remedies or bold initiatives.
There will be close scrutiny of how far he goes in talking tough about Iran’s nuclear program – but even on that point, aides say privately he will not break new policy ground.
Obama’s final turn on the world stage before facing voters will be a reflection of where his priorities lie. Despite simmering global crises, he will skip traditional private meetings with foreign counterparts and squeeze his U.N. visit into just 24 hours so he can jump back on the campaign trail.
U.N. delegates shouldn’t take it personally.
“It’s just that they don’t vote,” said Joseph Cirincione, a foreign policy expert at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.
But Obama’s relatively low-key U.N. itinerary will also be a stark reminder that the heady optimism that greeted him when he took office promising to be a transformational statesman has cooled, giving way to geopolitical realities.
Run of bad news
Aides insist foreign policy is still an election-year bright spot for Obama. The White House never tires of touting the killing of Osama bin Laden and the ending of the war in Iraq. But his record appears to have dimmed a bit with a recent run of bad news.
Obama has found himself sharply at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a dispute that sent relations between the two close allies to a new low on the president’s watch.
An eruption of violent unrest against U.S. diplomatic missions across the Muslim world has confronted Obama with his worst setback yet in his efforts to keep the Arab Spring from fueling a new wave of anti-Americanism – and has underscored that he has few good options to deal with it.
NATO’s cutback of joint operations with Afghan forces in response to a spate of deadly “insider” attacks has also raised questions about what will be left behind when, under Obama’s strategy, most U.S. forces depart Afghanistan in 2014.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision last week to suspend a U.S. aid mission to Moscow threatens what’s left of Obama’s “reset” in relations with Russia, which his aides had touted as a signature foreign policy accomplishment.
At the same time, the Obama administration has shown itself unwilling to intervene to end the bloody crisis in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has defied international calls to step aside and pressed on with efforts to crush an 18-month uprising.
Romney and his campaign aides have pounced on these developments, seeking to support their argument that Obama has weakened America’s global standing by failing to lead.
“It’s symptomatic of failed policy,” said Dan Senor, a Romney adviser who served as a spokesman in Baghdad under President George W. Bush. “Biography and force of personality are nice attributes but not substitutes for leadership.”
Obama, whose lofty oratory and vision of multilateral diplomacy helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize after just 11 months in office, is widely credited with improving the tone of U.S. foreign relations after what was perceived as a go-it-alone approach by his predecessor, Bush.
“It’s clear that the United States is in a stronger position than we were when he took office,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in previewing the themes of Obama’s U.N. speech.
But while polls show Obama remains personally popular in many parts of the world, America’s image is again in decline, especially in the Middle East, the focus of intense personal outreach at the start of the president’s term.
Sagging foreign policy rating
Though it remains unclear how much of a liability the latest crisis will be for Obama at home, his approval rating on foreign policy dropped to 49 percent from 54 percent in August, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll after attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt, Libya and other Muslim countries.
But Romney may have a hard time reaping political dividends.
A Pew Research Center poll found that while 45 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of the crisis, only 26 percent backed Romney’s criticism of the president’s response. Romney was widely accused of opportunism in a national tragedy.
Obama, at the U.N., will address the unrest in Muslim countries fueled by an anti-Islamic film his administration has denounced, and will repeat his message that the United States “will never retreat from the world,” Vietor said.
He will also reassert that Iran must not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. But aides say privately that while he may sharpen his rhetoric, he will stop short of setting a specific “red line” for Tehran as Netanyahu has demanded.
At the same time, Obama will impart an implicit warning that a Romney presidency would pursue a more hawkish foreign policy.
Also unspoken will be the fact that Obama was caught flat-footed by the latest turmoil in Muslim countries.
Though the protests seemed to have subsided in most places for now and Libya even saw a backlash against Islamist militiamen, some conservative commentators have conjured up images of the Iran hostage crisis – which helped sink Jimmy Carter’s re-election – should the situation deteriorate.
“If there’s more of it, it drives home a sense that he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” said Elliot Abrams, former deputy national security adviser under Bush. “If there were a few more weeks of it, it would have a political impact.”