For the first time in a very long time, a Democrat has a clear advantage on national security issues. —Michele Flournoy, national security campaign adviser
For a presidential election that many expected to focus on the economy, September introduced a number of foreign policy issues into the race, ranging from discord with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accusations of politicizing tragedy, following the death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya.
As Edward Morrissey wrote at The Week, "Welcome to the campaign, foreign policy."
Democrats started the month on a foreign policy high, emphasizing it throughout the Democratic National Convention and pointing to polls that showed them even with Republicans on terrorism and ahead on foreign policy.
"For the first time in a very long time, a Democrat has a clear advantage on national security issues," Michele Flournoy, a national security campaign adviser and former Defense Department official told Buzzfeed in an article published Sept. 11. "This is a real, significant shift in our political system."
By the end of day, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had been stormed, the Benghazi consulate in Libya had been attacked, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three State Department personnel had been killed and protests began spreading across the Middle East.
Also on that day, a conflict with Israel emerged when The Hill reported that President Obama wouldn't meet with Netanyahu while the prime minister was visiting the United Nations. The White House said the meeting couldn't happen because the two leaders were not in New York on the same day. The Israeli government accused the White House of lying, saying they offered to meet in Washington, while the White House said no such request had been made or rejected.
The Telegraph reported on Sept. 12 that the two men spoke for an hour on the phone, and agreed to continue "close consultations going forward" in regard to Iran's nuclear program.
Both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney got caught up in foreign policy as protests erupted across the Middle East, purportedly over a 13-minute YouTube clip critics decried as ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad. The protests began Sept. 11 and are still ongoing.
In a convoluted sequence of events, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt released a statement prior to the first protest, saying, "We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others." The statement was followed by tweets that shared a similar message. Romney later released a statement criticizing the Obama administration for first sympathizing with those attacking the embassy before condemning the attack.
The administration disavowed the embassy's statement, saying it had not been approved and did not reflect the views of the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, Obama campaign manager Ben LaBolt released a statement saying, "We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack."
Much of the focus over the coming days centered on Romney's reaction to the attacks in Egypt and Libya. At the time, some defended Romney, while others criticized Obama.
"Tuesday's assaults on the U.S. Embassies in Benghazi and Cairo have injected foreign policy into the president campaign, but suddenly the parsons of the press corps are offended by the debate. They're upset that Mitt Romney had the gall to criticize the State Department for a statement that the White House itself disavowed," a Wall Street Journal article stated. "His political faux pas was to offend a pundit class that wants to cede the foreign policy debate to Mr. Obama without thinking seriously about the trouble for America that is building in the world."
"What we're witnessing is perhaps the partial collapse of the Obama doctrine — the 'leading from behind' manifesto that has governed the way the administration conducted foreign policy over the past three-and-a-half years," Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard said. "And all we heard about all day today was the media and whether Mitt Romney should have put out a statement at that time."
Ongoing reports about the Middle East situation have put the spotlight back on the Obama administration, as the Independent reported that the U.S. was warned of possible violent unrest three days before the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied that Washington had been warned.
"We had no actionable intelligence that an attack on our post in Benghazi was planned or imminent," Clinton said Tuesday.
That same day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney suggested the assault could have been the work of a group looking to "take advantage" of demonstrations. A few days earlier, Carney suggested that the White House had no information to suggest the unrest in the Middle East was preplanned.
Al Jazeera reported that even though the Benghazi consulate was hit by an improvised explosive device on June 6, the diplomatic mission had light security on Sept. 11, while Libya's President Mohammed el-Megarif told Al Jazeera that the attack was pre-planned and there was likely an al-Qaeda link.
"The idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous," Megarif told NPR. "We firmly believe that this was a precalculated, preplanned attack that was carried out specifically to attack the U.S. consulate."
On Wednesday, Matt Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the attack on the consulate was a "terrorist attack," and that the government had indications al-Qaeda was directly involved.
On Sept. 13, Marc Thiessen of The Washington Post reported that the last time Obama attended his daily intelligence meeting was Sept. 5. Thiessen reported earlier that the president was attending his briefings 43.8 percent of the time. The White House disputed Thiessen's report, saying the president received a written briefing daily. Since the attacks in the Middle East, The Washington Examiner reported that Obama had been attending his daily intelligence briefings.
Romney and vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan will begin receiving intelligence briefings this week, as is customary in the latter stages of a general election campaign, CNN reported.
In a video released by Mother Jones Monday, Romney, who has been criticized for calling Russia America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," and for commenting on London's Olympic preparation, is seen talking to donors about the Israel-Palestinian situation.
In the video, Romney said Palestinians have "no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish."
"No one stands to gain more from peace with Israel than Palestinians and no one stands to lose more in the absence of peace than Palestinians," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters, responding to Romney's remark. "Only those who want to maintain the Israeli occupation will claim the Palestinians are not interested in peace."
Prior to the attacks and protests the Middle East, Buzzfeed reported that the Obama administration was feeling secure in its foreign policy record, and was prepared for the foreign and domestic policy debates scheduled for October.
"President Obama, officials say, can discuss the killing of Bin Laden, ending the war in Iraq, bringing troops home from Afghanistan, the toughest sanctions on Iran so far, and what the foreign policy community perceives as a successful intervention in Libya," the Buzzfeed article said.
However, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, released Monday, showed a 5 percentage point drop in Obama's job approval on foreign policy since August. The president's support among independent voters dropped 12 point.