With Barack Obama enjoying a healthy lead in both the national polls and, more crucially, the marginal battleground states, Mitt Romney’s campaign believes it has at last found a way to turn the Democratic tide. Although Romney has shown himself to be an all-round inept campaigner, not least during his gaffe-ridden tour of Europe, when his attempt to win muchneeded foreign policy credentials ended up as fodder for comedians, Republican campaigners think they have discovered an issue that will resonate with voters: the risk to American lives caused by the president’s softly, softly approach to the country’s enemies.
They are pinning their hopes on portraying as an act of wilful negligence the administration’s response to the killing of the US ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans after their compound in Benghazi came under fire from insurgents on 11 September. The initial account by Obama’s foreign policy officials was that the deaths resulted from a spontaneous attack by a mob of Muslims angered by a film that made fun of the Prophet Muhammad. As similar demonstrations were taking place across the Middle East, the initial explanation seemed plausible. While commiserating with the families of the dead, Obama played down the attack as “a bump in the road”.
As the days passed and more details of the raid became known, it became clear that the first official report had been misleading. Ambassador Stevens seems to have been killed in a well-planned assassination designed to demonstrate that al-Qaeda, far from being defeated, is still in business. The timing of the murders – on 11 September, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001 – suggests that it was an audacious al-Qaeda raid and that the Obama administration sought to play it down for fear of an anxious and angry response from voters just a few weeks before the election.
The Romney camp is on to something. The crowds that chant “USA! USA!” at political rallies and porting events display a patriotism that few British can fully credit. It may seem extravagant and overblown to buttoned-down Brits but flag-waving and unconditional love of country comes from the heart for Americans, who passionately believe in the idea of their country’s exceptional destiny.
The attacks of 11 September 2001 are seen not only as a shocking tragedy but as an assault on the dignity of the US. Americans were humiliated that they had been caught unawares because they had been too trusting of foreigners. George W Bush, who had been clearly warned by intelligence operatives that America might be attacked by terrorists crashing hijacked airliners into tall buildings, was driven to make conspicuous amends, leading him to desperate measures, including launching the war in Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, who Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, believed had ties to al-Qaeda.
As a young senator, Obama opposed the Iraq war and this was one of the reasons he was elected in 2008. Having won the White House, his reasonable approach to diplomacy, particularly his reaching out to Muslims in a speech about Islam in Egypt on 4 June 2009, was welcomed by liberals at home and abroad, including many Europeans. “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said. Yet, to many Americans, the speech seemed to betray a dangerous policy of appeasement.
One thing that inspires many US conser - vatives is the belief in the historian Bernard Lewis’s notion that the world is engaged in a clash of civilisations between Islam and the rest and that this is a war to the death. That Obama played down the importance of an al- Qaeda attack on a US mission in an Arab country on the anniversary of the most spectacular terrorist attack on American soil is sure to resonate well beyond those who say they will vote for Romney.
The ground has been laid for Romney to confront Obama on the issue. Conservatives of all stripes are, for once, behind him. The comparatively moderate John McCain, who is respected on both sides of the political divide and whose support for Romney has until now been lukewarm, has come out fighting. “It was either wilful ignorance or dismal intelligence to think that people come to spontaneous demonstrations with heavy weapons [and] mortars and the attack goes on for hours,” he told CNN on 30 September. “The president said, ‘Osama Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaeda’s done. Everything’s fine in the Middle East.’ This obviously con - tradicts that campaign slogan. Because of this failed national security policy, the chickens are coming home to roost in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya and, of course, in Syria,” he added to MSNBC on 1 October.
Asleep at his post
Romney, who was criticised when he chastised the president on hearing of the Benghazi deaths
– a breach of the protocol that partisan attacks are out of order when America is under fire – will accuse Obama, in a keynote speech, of betraying the American people by not protecting them from terrorism, denying the true nature of the Benghazi attack and covering up evidence that implicates al-Qaeda. That accusation will be the thrust of his invective in the foreign affairs presidential debate on 22 October.
Will Romney’s gambit work? It has become a cliché that voters decide how to vote on how well off they feel. Over the past month, Americans have become more optimistic about the economy, a fact reflected in the steady swing towards Obama. Yet national pride is an important element in the make-up of most Americans, including Democrats. It may be that if Romney can, for once, articulate effectively that Obama was asleep at his post when the Benghazi mission was attacked and that the US is at risk from more attacks so long as he is commander-inchief – and if that message is repeated in artful advertising that appeals to the deep-seated patriotism of ordinary Americans – Obama could see his re-election chances evaporate.
Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published in paperback by W W Norton (£12.99).