MS. IFILL: An abrupt change in the political winds as foreign policy intrudes in what had been a largely domestic debate, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Unrest abroad shifts the political agenda at home with embassies under siege, four Americans killed and fresh anger on display throughout the Muslim world.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will not waiver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake: justice will be done.
MS. IFILL: The men running for president face a leadership test.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [GOP Presidential Candidate]: It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.
As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we’re at the mercy of events instead of shaping events.
PRES. OBAMA: Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later. And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that.
MS. IFILL: Refocusing on America’s role in the world – will it change the direction of the campaign or of U.S. foreign policy?
Covering the story: Major Garrett of National Journal; Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times; Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal; and David Sanger of the New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. This was a week of accusation, uprising, politics, action, reaction and today, sadness as the bodies of four Americans returned home after being killed in Benghazi, Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke today at a dignified transfer ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that, because it is senseless. The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob.
MS. IFILL: But the protests have spread, as this Google map shows, throughout the Middle East and beyond. You can look and see it’s in Pakistan; it’s in London; it’s everywhere, all over the region and beyond.
What happened in Benghazi was tragic, but is this something that had been building for some time, David, or was this just a spark?
MR. SANGER: Gwen, I think it was the flipside of these revolutions that we all watched with such amazement, and such enthusiasm in some cases, in January and February of last year.
You know, at the time of those uprisings, President Obama said what was remarkable about the Arab spring was that it wasn’t about us. It was about them. It was about throwing off old dictators.
Well, whenever you traveled to the region, there was always still a little bit of an undercurrent of about us, whether we were supporting democracy, whether we were interfering, whether we were imposing our values.
And this week, it really became about us because these awful videos that you’ve seen were really what happens when American free speech meets American religious tolerance or intolerance.
MS. IFILL: Let’s explain that. That’s a film or at least a trailer for a film that we have now heard about, and probably very few – relatively few people have seen, which was crude and offensive and circulated widely apparently around the region. But was that really the animating thing or was there resentment that had always been there, Doyle?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, it’s both, but in fact the film was getting around and was being actively propagated by two different kinds of people in Egypt. It’s a very strange story.
One was a number of Coptic Christians, who have been oppressed and mistreated by some Muslim militants over the last months in Egypt. They’ve been in a sense some of the unintended victims of the Egyptian revolution.
Well, there is a kind of a lunatic fringe among Coptic Christians who spread vicious anti-Muslim propaganda, and they apparently were involved in this. That then played into the back and forth on Egyptian television, Egyptian talk radio between Coptic militants and Islamic militants who hate each other, but you had the worst possible elements.
And then, finally, you have – yes, David’s right – it’s about us, but it’s also about them, because you have a power struggle here, particularly in Egypt, between different Islamist parties.
The Muslim Brotherhood of Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt, is the relatively moderate wing of the Islamist movement. There are also Salafists who don’t want to have a relationship with the United States and who desperately want Egypt to break off its chilly but correct relationship with Israel. So we’ve got layers and layers and layers.
MS. IFILL: Well, you just hit on something important, which is that at the beginning of the week, we saw the president having to make a phone call to Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, difficult relationship. The end of the week, we saw him having to make a phone call to Mohamed Morsi, the new president of Egypt, another difficult relationship, theoretically depending whether you’re using the term of art as the White House put it or not, both allies. How difficult was this for the White House to juggle?
MS. MECKLER: I think it was really difficult for them, because here we have a White House that really sort of tiptoed its way through the Arab spring and tried to be on the side of the demonstrators but not too much and sort of tried to balance that out and I think kind of felt like they had gotten through it. And then, all of a sudden, we’re back there here today.
And this is also a president, keep in mind, who went to Cairo in 2009 and said he wanted a new start with the Arab world and then the Muslim world, and said, you know, this is – forget the – yes, there have been bad things have happened in the past, but this is a new – dawning of a new day.
And here we are near the end of his first term and we see protests throughout the region, anti-American protests. Even if they’re not fully directed at the U.S., that certainly is how it feels when you have –
MS. IFILL: Wasn’t his speech exactly like that in Cairo, Major, that brought Mitt Romney to his major critique this week, which is that the president was going around the world apologizing?
MR. GARRETT: The central complaint that Mitt Romney tried to inject into this campaign in the aftermath of an embassy statement in Cairo – and it’s important to disaggregate what happened in Egypt from what happened in Libya, because what happened is Mitt Romney found his campaign caught in the vortex of what happened in Libya – what he was actually commenting about was Egypt – was to say the president through his State Department was giving voice to grievances that he felt were illegitimate and that he’s done that consistently since the Arab spring.
That’s an important foreign policy argument to have. The Romney campaign represents and has represented ever since that they intend to make this a fulsome part of the campaign. There’s no evidence that they’ve actually done that since that first statement, but there’s still time.
What strikes me about what Governor Romney did by injecting himself to try to make a point – he did so in an emphatic and inflammatory way, but didn’t follow up. And that’s a consistent element of the Romney campaign – you pick a fight, but you don’t carry on the fight, either on a substantive level or a consistent level. And that seems to me to be something that has been dogging the Romney campaign throughout.
MS. MECKLER: I think that one level this was a very bad week for Mitt Romney. His response to what happened was virtually universally either ignored or panned. He got almost no backup from the Republican establishment in his critique of the Obama administration saying that they were essentially apologizing for America. No one else really bought into that. And he had a really tough week, but I think it was also a difficult week for President Obama because this is – when events spiral out of your control and when there’s unrest and when people feel nervous, that’s not good for an incumbent.
MS. IFILL: Except that then what we then look for, especially in foreign policy, which isn’t very manageable, is who’s the better leader? Who’s a more credible leader in all of this? And Mitt Romney tried to make the argument that it was not President Obama.
But this begs the question then, Doyle, what would Mitt Romney have done with this or any of these other sticky issues? Has he said anything? Has he laid out an approach that we can look to and say, this is the kind of president he would be in this situation?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, he has, but it has been – as with much, again, of the Romney campaign, it’s been at the level of generality, so there’s not a list of six things that Governor Romney would have done.
He does have a critique of the Obama foreign policy in the Arab world. He says he would have been tougher on the Egyptians, for example, on conditionality for American aid. And there are a few specifics there, but it’s hard to get down to see how that would really have changed these circumstances.
You know, one of his aides, Rich Williamson, was saying at the end of the week quite bluntly what Governor Romney had said only implicitly, which is the charge that the Obama administration’s weakness was the cause of these disruptions in the Arab world. That’s a really hard case to make since these disruptions have happened under President Reagan, President Clinton, and President George W. Bush.
MR. SANGER: That’s right. I think it was in the Reagan administration in 1983 when the bombing happened in Lebanon that killed over 240 Marines and certainly during George W. Bush’s time we saw a lot of attacks on embassies.
When you think about what the substance of the Romney critique was, I think he ran into trouble on two fronts. The first was he argued that this embassy statement had been an apology. And when you read the statement, it read like a lot of statements I’ve seen coming out of embassies. It was meant –
MS. IFILL: To calm things down.
MR. SANGER: To calm things. But it actually came out before the first protest happened, which is important, and it was an effort to say, we disassociate the U.S. government from this video. You have to understand there is –
MS. IFILL: It just didn’t work out that way.
MR. SANGER: It just didn’t sort out. But when you listen to Governor Romney, it seems that it conflated the timing. And, of course, by the time Governor Romney spoke that night or issued a statement that night, it was just a few hours later that the killings happened in Libya.
MS. IFILL: And, as we saw, the upheaval in Egypt and Libya quickly became the fuel for the latest stage of the presidential campaign. Romney’s critique of the president’s foreign policy record morphed into an attack on his overall ability to lead. This was running mate Paul Ryan today making that case at the Values Voter Summit meeting here in Washington.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI) [GOP Vice Presidential Candidate]: Amid all these threats and dangers, what we do not see is steady, consistent American leadership. In the days ahead and in the years ahead, American foreign policy needs moral clarity and firmness of purpose.
MS. IFILL: But Romney himself may have sent his own mixed signals when he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he and the president actually agree on one key issue: where to draw the line with Iran.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS [ABC News]: Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has suggested he wants more clear red lines from the United States. What is your red line with Iran?
MR. ROMNEY: Well, my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon. Iran as a nuclear nation is unacceptable to the United States of America.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: President Obama said exactly the same thing. He said it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. So your red line is the same as his.
MR. ROMNEY: Yes. And I laid out what I would do to keep Iran from reaching that red line. I said that crippling sanctions needed to be put in place immediately that combined with standing up with Iranian dissidents. The president was silent. In addition, I think Ahmadinejad should have been indicted under the Genocide Convention for incitation to genocide.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But your red line going forward is the same.
MR. ROMNEY: Yes. And recognize that when one says that it’s unacceptable to the United States of America, that that means what it says.
MS. IFILL: Tell me if I’m wrong, David, but he has said twice in that interview that the red line is the same as the president’s red line. That is not what the campaign has been saying.
MR. SANGER: And it’s not even what Mr. Romney himself said when he was in Israel in July. Here’s what the red line debate is all about.
The president has said that he would stop Iran from obtaining a weapon. But the big debate is: what do you do about Iran obtaining the capability to build one, the ability to put together the fuel, the weaponry, the expertise, deliver it on a missile? The Israeli position has been, you have to stop this before they get the weapon because once they have the weapon, it’s too late.
Previously, Mr. Romney has basically adopted the Israeli position. And on the day that he said this to George Stephanopoulos, the campaign had a number of their surrogates out describing to us why the Romney – a President Romney would stop that capability.
MS. IFILL: And the campaign basically said it was inartfully worded, Doyle.
MR. MCMANUS: The campaign said that George Stephanopoulos had mischaracterized President Obama’s position.
MS. IFILL: That’s why we played his questions so you could hear it.
MR. MCMANUS: I didn’t hear a lot of mischaracterization. It’s a complicated business. I think Governor Romney may have forgotten the nuance.
MR. GARRETT: The question of Iran, the question of what is America’s interest in a post-Arab spring is a legitimate, important issue. Most foreign policy experts agree with that. If you’re going to engage in that debate, engage that debate. Explain what U.S. policy needs to be in Egypt, where there are different issues than there are in Libya, than there are in Tunisia, than there are in Iran. Take that issue on, prosecute your case and take it to the American public. If you don’t, you run the risk – which has been the risk that Governor Romney suffered the last 72 hours – of being crass, opportunistic and wild in your bluster as opposed to –
MS. IFILL: Or being perceived that way at least.
MR. GARRETT: – focused, being accused of that. And the way to deal with that is to make the case on these broader fronts and state what you would do differently than the existing president.
MS. MECKLER: And that’s why it’s so difficult for him politically, because it does come across as flailing on a number of these issues. And then you have the contrast with President Obama who is, what’s he doing? He’s standing in the Rose Garden talking about a tragedy. He’s at Andrews Air Force Base where these bodies are coming home. He is acting as commander-in-chief. And polling shows that he has a big edge on the ability to handle foreign affairs, who people trust most on to be the commander-in-chief.
MR. GARRETT (?): But, nevertheless, struggling in Egypt.
MS. MECKLER: So I think this plays into his strength.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s break down into just bare naked politics here for a minute because, you’re right. The polls do show that the president has an edge when it comes to foreign policy. And tonight there’s a New York Times polls that shows that he actually is getting an edge when it comes to the economy. This is something that has never happened before. We’ve seen battleground polls this week that show the president five points ahead in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. They kind of –
MS. MECKLER: Seven points in Ohio.
MR. SANGER (?): Seven points in Ohio.
MS. IFILL: Seven points in Ohio. They kind of need that. They kind of need it. What’s going on?
MR. GARRETT: The country feels better about itself according to the right track/wrong track numbers since the end of both conventions. Well, the second convention was the Democratic convention. The bumps in there seems to be aggregating toward the president and the Democratic convention.
MS. IFILL: And we should point out – none of this is in the wake yet of the foreign policy.
MR. GARRETT: And on the economic issue, the president is closing the gap. And on the foreign policy issue he’s widening it. And among key demographic groups, those who earn more than $75,000, he’s competitive with Romney; whites he’s closer with Romney; but on his key constituencies, minorities, those who are single, not married, and under $75,000, the president is expanding his lead. So where he needs to gain, he’s gaining. Where Romney needs to gain, he’s either losing or keeping just steady with the president. And that’s driving his deficit.
MS. MECKLER: But the question is why are those things happening? And I think the reason is because Governor Romney has made a compelling case that the economy isn’t good enough, but he needs to take it a step further, which is to say, why should you hire him instead? And he hasn’t been able to make that case, at least not with enough voters to have this swing. And I think that that’s the problem.
And as time goes on in this campaign, he’s losing opportunities to do that. And so, therefore, we have a situation where I think the reason why these numbers are swinging in the way that Major just described it is because you have more and more voters saying, well, you know what? Maybe I prefer Obama.
MS. IFILL: Well, that little slice of voters we have all been watching.
MS. MECKLER: Yes.
MS. IFILL: But, okay. Just assume for a moment this was not a great week for Mitt Romney on the foreign policy front. Is that how people vote?
MR. MCMANUS: Look, they vote for a number of reasons. They vote on how they feel about the economy, but they also vote on how they feel about the competence of the president.
Actually, most people don’t vote on foreign policy per se. If you woke up voters in the middle of the night and said, do you think the red line for Iran should be having a weapon or having the capability, they’d say, what?
MS. IFILL: Red line? What’s that? Yes.
MR. MCMANUS: Right? But where they do vote is does this guy seem to have a grip on the job? And they have to absorb impressions about that any way they can. And this was not a good week for Mitt Romney on that score.
MR. SANGER: You know, one of the most remarkable things about that is that really from Eisenhower forward, the Republicans have usually had the monopoly on the position that they are tougher and more competent on national security. And whether it’s the combination of the bin Laden raid or the light footprint strategy –
MS. IFILL: They certainly don’t mind bringing up the bin Laden raid.
MR. SANGER: They don’t mind bringing it up. But, you know, other elements that people have understood. You know, Mr. Romney was going after the president as weak on Iran.
Well, what else do we know about the president? He’s done sanctions that are tougher than what happened with George Bush or under George Bush’s time. And he did “Olympic Games,” the covert program to undermine the centrifuges in Iran that are producing this nuclear fuel.
So these stories and others – I think Mr. Romney is having a hard time breaking through by explaining what he would do to make a stronger America.
MS. IFILL: Here are the numbers which baffle me. On one hand, we have people saying – the majority is still saying they think we’re heading in the wrong direction, the old right track/wrong track. People are not –
MR. GARRETT: Although slightly better.
MS. IFILL: Slightly better, but they still feel like their lives are not as good as they were four years ago, the question which the Romney have been posing. On the other hand, you ask them, are you optimistic about where we’ll be a year from now? And they say, yes. What is the collision here of this optimism with this pessimism and why does it help the president?
MS. MECKLER: That’s exactly the Obama campaign line, which is that that’s what he’s saying – I understand that things aren’t where they’re supposed to be.
MS. IFILL: So that’s taking.
MS. MECKLER: Yes. Well, I don’t know. Maybe it is, but it suggests that it might be in the sense that he’s saying – acknowledging the problems, saying we have a long way to go, but here’s my plan, here’s what I can do.
The Obama campaign people think that that’s what wins it for them. That’s what they focused on in the president’s speech at the convention was about here’s a credible plan. If you put me back in for another four years, this is what we’re going to do. And a lot of people noted that Romney’s speech didn’t have a lot of specifics about what he was going to do. Maybe that is something voters care about.
MR. GARRETT: Let’s do a little quick time capsule during the Olympics – Romney’s advertising during the Olympics, and a lot of people were tuning in, was about what was wrong with America. What was Obama’s advertising during the Olympics? You have a choice to make. I have a plan for the future. We can do better.
The Obama campaign determinedly was trying to be on the optimistic side of America’s future during a time when what were most Americans watching the Olympics doing? Cheering for America. They tried to follow the psychic trend lines of America during that period of time when the Romney campaign was saying, you know, things are terrible, get rid of the guy who’s in the White House. And the Obama campaign believes that was a net positive.
MR. MCMANUS: And this is an old story, but before the Olympics, the Obama campaign spent a lot of money attacking Mitt Romney’s record as a businessman at a time when Mitt Romney really did not hit back on that very effectively and that left an indelible impression on a lot of voters who were just getting to know who Mitt Romney was.
MR. SANGER: But, you know, Gwen, as you hear what I think most people around the table are saying was a bad week for Mr. Romney, you have to think that if these kind of protests go on – it’s 20 countries right now – this could swing pretty quickly. I mean, in the White House this week, what were they worried about? Under-protected embassies and consulates – I mean, this Libyan consulate had virtually no –
MR. GARRETT: Very soft target.
MR. SANGER: Right. Very soft target. Imagine a hostage crisis. You could imagine any number of things going wrong.
MS. IFILL: And there’s no amount of Ben Bernanke stimulus which could change people’s understanding of what the president’s leadership can or cannot do, what the limits I guess of leadership are. Nobody wants to be reminded of that.
But I do want to touch base briefly on that. The stock market went through the roof. Ben Bernanke finally put the Fed engaged and trying to stimulate the economy. Can it happen in time for the election?
MS. MECKLER: Well, no. It’s not going to turn around the economy in time for the election. It’s going to strengthen the stock market, as it already has, and that might make some people feel better about it, but in terms of its impact on jobs, no. It’s not going to have an impact on jobs in the next seven weeks or whatever we’ve got left.
The question I have more is not so much, will someone get hired because of this, but will somebody see – and this fits into what we were just talking about, about the Obama message – that there is a way ahead. There’s a road ahead. And will they look at this and say, okay, someone’s doing something. Maybe this will help.
And it’s important for viewers to understand that what the Fed did that was particularly interesting is they didn’t just say we’re going to buy a certain amount of bonds, we’re going to pump a certain amount of money into the economy. They said, we’re going to continue doing this every month until the job market recovers.
So maybe it gives people a little bit more confidence in it. I tend to wonder whether people’s views on the economy are a little bit baked at this point and that neither good news like this or bad news – another bad jobs report – is going to affect it that much.
MS. IFILL: But anything – I mean, for the Obama people who are getting very excited and the Romney people who are getting too depressed, it’s still too soon, because all kinds of things, especially in the foreign policy front, could change.
We’re going to have to stop, shockingly. We’re out of time. But thank you all. We have to go but we have a lot left to say, as you can tell. You can find it all as the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.”
Keep up with daily developments with me on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you right here again next week on “Washington Week.”
And for all of those celebrating next Monday, a happy Rosh Hashanah. And good night.