Foreign Policy Rears Its Unpredictable Head

FILE - In this May 8, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Lan
FILE - In this May 8, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Lansing, Mich. Looks like President Barack Obama's allies got the hint. An independent group with deep ties to the Democrat's re-election campaign rolls out a TV ad assailing Mitt Romney over business practices at Bain Capital _ just 24 hours after Obama himself opened the same line of attack. It’s a sign of the new world of campaign finance, where super PACs have wide leeway (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

During an election cycle that has largely focused the U.S. economy, developments in three of the most volatile countries in the Middle East and North Africa have brought international events - beyond the control of either candidate - to the lead story in newspapers and newscasts.

In a span of less than 24 hours, the White House has had to deal with a press report accusing President Barack Obama of refusing to meet with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and coordinated attacks by Islamist mobs against U.S. diplomatic facilities in Egypt and Libya in response to an anti-Islamic movie on YouTube.

The biggest flashpoint has been the attacks in Libya and Egypt. When the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a statement - prepared before the attacks - condemning the makers of the movie which offended the protesters. The statement, which was posted on the embassy's website, read, "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims - as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions." The White House subsequently distanced itself from the embassy statement, which was eventually taken down from its website.

Mitt Romney seized on the statement, saying, "I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus also weighed in, tweeting "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic." It should be noted that both statements were made before the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was known.

It's unclear which candidate - if any - would most benefit from the events of the past 24 hours. As a challenger, Romney can't do anything in response to any situation except make statements. While critiquing Obama's foreign policy - or that of any incumbent president - is a legitimate issue for a challenger, Romney and the Republican Party have to be very careful, particularly in how they handle the Libya issue. Coming across as trying to exploit the deaths of four U.S. embassy workers for political purposes could easily give a negative impression among voters and the media.

At the same time, President Obama has no choice but to deal with all three issues while running for reelection. From his perspective, it shifts the focus of the race from the economy - his biggest liability in this election - to foreign policy - one of his biggest strengths where he has a proven track record of results. However, miscalculation or mishandling of one or more of them could erase any perceived advantage in foreign policy he might have, during the crucial final stretch before the November election when voters are most paying attention.

These developments should remind both Obama and Romney that there are events beyond either of their control which can shape the race that can be a double-edged sword. Will these events shift the fundamental dynamics of the U.S. election away from the economy toward foreign policy? In and of themselves, they probably won't. But this possibility should not be ruled out if one or more of these situations escalate in the days, weeks or months ahead.