Once again, with his intemperate criticisms of the handling of the anti-American episodes in Egypt and Libya, Mitt Romney has leaped before looking into the arena of President Barack Obama's greatest political strength.
In accusing the Obama administration of apologizing in the wake of an attack on the American embassy in Cairo and the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Mr. Romney has laid himself open to the charge of politicizing a foreign policy crisis. Worse, he has at least temporarily shifted the focus of the presidential campaign away from his strongest debating point, the stalled economy at home.
Already perceived as weak in the foreign affairs realm after his brief and gaffe-hindered trip abroad before the Republican National Convention, Mr. Romney has now raised the specter of an inexperienced and bumbling meddler on the course of American overseas policy, violating the old axiom that politics ends at the water's edge.
Mr. Obama wasted no time in pouncing on his challenger's muddled remarks. "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he said in a CBS News interview. "And as president, one of the things I have learned is that you can't do that. You have to make sure that statements you make are backed up by facts, and that you have to think through the ramifications before you make them."
Mr. Romney's apparent eagerness to narrow Mr. Obama's wide lead in the polls on foreign policy, fortified by the president's role in authorizing the Navy Seals' assault that killed Osama bin Laden, has instead raised questions about his political judgment as the campaign approaches its most intense period.
More critical now will be the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, when Mr. Romney certainly will be questioned, either by the moderator, Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour, or Mr. Obama himself, about his remarks and the general conduct of foreign policy under the Democratic president.
It will be an opportunity for Mr. Obama to emphasize a point that has gotten little attention in the campaign to date. That is the sharp pivot he has achieved from the adventurist foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, putting the country back on the path of collective engagement in world crises.
While Mr. Obama continued the Bush policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a troop surge in the latter that was similar to Mr. Bush's surge in Iraq, he ended the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and has been moving toward that objective in Afghanistan. And in Libya, Mr. Obama adopted a more moderate role in supplying air support to the effort, led by the French and British, to oust Moammar Gadhafi.
This Obama policy was criticized by Republicans as "leading from behind," but it accommodated American public opinion that had had enough of Mr. Bush's essentially unilateralist approach, cloaked in his transparent "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. Mr. Romney's tough talk now and accusation that Mr. Obama is soft on support of Israel may appeal to his conservative base. But is not likely to sit well with Americans fed up with the loss of U.S. lives abroad.
Just who is advising Mr. Romney on foreign policy is not clear, with his own Republican ranks unsettled by his latest venture into this particular hornet's nest. One, rabble-rousing former UN Ambassador John Bolton, told Politico: "Forget Romney for a minute; this is an opportunity for another Tehran [hostage seizure] in 1979 if we don't have more leadership out of the White House. What are we supposed to [do], sit around like potted plants and watch this weakness and failure of leadership just play out without trying to fix it?"
Conservative Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Jon Kyl of Arizona have come to Mr. Romney's defense, but others, like Rep. Peter King of New York, have questioned his lack of prudence in his trigger responses. In all, Mr. Romney has erred in rushing to play on Mr. Obama's strongest battleground, when he needs to focus on what can be his only winning turf -- lifting the country from a lagging economic recovery.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime 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.