By Jeremy Herb - 09/15/12 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama has said that elevating the image of the United States around the world was one of his proudest foreign policy accomplishments, but those remarks could boomerang and hamper his reelection bid.
The violence and anti-American protests throughout the Middle East are bringing fresh attacks on the president’s foreign policies as Muslim rage is intensifying in the region.
In February, Obama said, “One of the proudest things of my three years in office is helping to restore a sense of respect for America around the world, a belief that we are not just defined by the size of our military.”
Three years ago in Cairo, Obama stressed his leadership would be dramatically different than former President George W. Bush’s: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”
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Prior to the recent violence, polls showed that the image of the U.S. had improved overseas. But this week, protesters in Afghanistan burned Obama in effigy and cable news shows ran footage of many burning U.S. flags in various countries.
Republicans have blasted Obama’s foreign policy record in the wake of the protests and attack in Libya that left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.
They argue that the contrasts Obama made of his policies compared to his predecessor, President George W. Bush, have not yielded the success that he claimed would come in the Muslim world.
And amid the violence and attacks on U.S. embassies, Republicans say that Obama’s foreign policy record is weak and “feckless,” as Obama’s 2008 opponent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) charged this week.
One Mitt Romney adviser suggested to the Washington Post Friday that Stevens’s death wouldn’t have happened had Romney been president.
"What we do not see is steady, consistent American leadership," GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said Friday at the Values Voter Summit, arguing that the Middle East unrest showed the need for new U.S. leadership.
“In the days ahead and in the years ahead, American foreign policy needs moral clarity and firmness of purpose,” Ryan said.
Democrats say that the Republican criticism simply does not ring true, as the president’s record on foreign policy is sound and the Republican ticket has revealed its inexperience, pointing to a statement issued Tuesday evening by the Romney campaign denouncing the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Democrats add that the protests in countries that were part of the Arab Spring are one element of a long transition away from dictatorship. They say the protests do not represent the U.S. image being tarnished in the region, as they were being carried by militants and not those who sought democratic change in the Arab Spring.
Obama spoke to that point on Friday, when he talked about Libyans in the streets with signs praising Stevens after his death became public.
“The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday.
Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said that the protests do not represent a blemish on Obama’s foreign policy record.
“I think what’s causing the unrest is obviously the transition in these governments,” Smith told The Hill. “That’s hard to say you can blame Obama’s foreign policy for the fact you had all these dictatorships in the Middle East for years and years that finally fell, and that people are trying to find replacements for it. It’s going to be an unstable and difficult situation.”
The new focus on foreign policy in the campaign comes as images of unrest and chaos have been shown across the Middle East for the past four days, after the first protests and attacks on U.S. facilities occurred in Cairo and Benghazi Tuesday.
Protests raged across the region following Friday prayers, with attacks on U.S. embassies in Tunisia, Yemen and elsewhere, many occurring in countries that were part of the Arab Spring that saw dictators removed from power.
The protests were sparked at least in part by an anti-Islam video produced in the United States, although the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi appears to have been a more-coordinated effort.
The unrest in the Middle East comes amid a presidential campaign where the Democratic candidate has a rare advantage on foreign policy issues. Obama’s foreign policy record includes the killing of Osama bin Laden, the end of the Iraq war and the ouster of ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
For Republicans, however, the protests are a sign that Obama’s successes don’t go beyond the death of bin Laden.
House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Friday that Obama’s attitude of “apologizing” has signaled weakness to U.S. enemies in the Middle East.
“Those people take advantage, when they see us apologizing and they see it as weakness and then they come after us,” McKeon told The Hill. “Our foreign policy is I think in shambles, and you just look at this whole Arab Spring and nothing has turned out the way we’ve expected.”
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said that the president’s attempt at conflict resolution in the Middle East was viewed as “weakness” by militants there.
“Obama thought he pretty much had the foreign policy boxes checked,” Rubin said. “The president came into office determined to set a new tone in the Middle East, to differentiate himself against Bush… Seeing this humiliation of attacks on U.S. embassies, it makes it very hard to judge Obama’s approach as anything but a failure,”
Obama supporters dismiss the notion that Obama “apologized” for the U.S. to gain favor in the Middle East, and that the new unrest does not signal a policy failure for the United States.
Larry Korb, a defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said this week’s incidents in the Middle East would not harm Obama’s reelection chances — and that more of a focus on foreign policy actually would help the president, despite the violence.
“What Americans are much more concerned about is getting out of the wars, getting bin Laden,” Korb said. “If Romney is going to win, it’s going to be on the economy. It’s not going to be foreign policy. People are happy we’re out of Iraq and on our way out of Afghanistan.”
It’s still unclear whether the protests will be sustained beyond this week, or if they will fade out both in the Middle East and the presidential race.
Rubin said this is a different situation from the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, which remained in heavy rotation on the news because there were U.S. hostages involved.
“It could very well be a flash or the pan, long since forgotten by Election Day,” Rubin said.
Cameron Joseph contributed to this article.