Mitt Romney's foreign policy address Monday would have been good under any circumstances. But the fact that he gave it after decisively defeating President Obama in debate made Romney's presentation seem more serious, more sober and more consequential. The debate win, witnessed by nearly 70 million Americans, turned Romney into a potential president. Now, for all Americans -- and for foreign leaders, too -- what Romney says about the world matters.
Which is why the Obama campaign, still trying to regain its footing after the debacle in Denver, is desperately trying to portray Romney as a dangerous naif who shouldn't be anywhere near the Oval Office. As Romney delivered his speech, at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Obama released a new ad that began: "Reckless. Amateurish. That's what news media and fellow Republicans called Mitt Romney's gaffe-filled July tour of England, Israel and Poland."
As criticisms go, that's both old and trivial. Today, the real foreign policy battleground between the two campaigns is Libya. After first criticizing the administration on Sept. 11, the night Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were murdered in Benghazi, Romney has held back, staying mostly silent even as evidence accumulated that the Obama administration mishandled the Libya situation terribly and then wasn't honest about its real cause.
At VMI, Romney found his voice again. "The attack on our consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, was likely the work of forces affiliated with those that attacked our homeland on Sept. 11, 2001," Romney said. "This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration's attempts to convince us of that for so long."
Romney could have said a lot more. In recent days, the public has learned that the Obama administration knew full well the dangers that faced Stevens and his colleagues in Libya and in fact denied requests to provide more security for diplomats in that very hazardous place. On Wednesday, the head of a security team that was ordered home from Libya in August will tell the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that embassy staff strongly opposed the security cuts. "We felt we needed more, not less ... for the environment we had," Lt. Col. Andrew Wood told CBS News in a hearing preview.
As questions mount, the Obama campaign's main response is that Romney isn't fit to ask them. "Governor Romney's unseemly response to the tragic murder of our ambassador in Libya raises further questions about his judgment on national security issues," top Obama campaign national security advisers Michele Flournoy and Colin Kahl wrote in a memo released to coincide with Romney's speech. "Governor Romney's first (and second and third and fourth) instinct was to play politics with the tragedy and attempt to score political points in any way he could."
That's not exactly addressing the question. The public still doesn't know why the administration, from United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the president himself, insisted that the Benghazi attack was a spontaneous crowd reaction sparked by the anti-Muslim video. Nor do outsiders know why the administration seemed to downplay security in Libya, even after devoting so many American resources to aiding the rebels who overthrew Moammar Gadhafi.
Nor has the administration offered a compelling explanation for why, in addition to the terrorist attack in Libya, so many crowds in Muslim countries have targeted U.S. government facilities, burning the American flag and replacing it with an Islamist banner. What happened to the president's much-touted outreach to the Muslim world?
Meanwhile, Romney running mate Paul Ryan, preparing to debate Vice President Biden on Thursday, is pushing Libya, too. On the stump in Ohio on Monday, Ryan promised to keep clear eyes about America's enemies. "In a Romney administration, when we know that we are clearly attacked by terrorists, we won't be afraid to say what it is," Ryan said. "If terrorists attack us, we will say we had a terrorist attack, and more importantly, we will do what is necessary to prevent that from happening."
The debate win has made Romney appear more confident, more relaxed, more in control of his surroundings. He's showing new energy every day on the campaign trail, buoyed by polls that suggest a significant bounce from the debate victory. (A Pew Research Center poll released Monday showed a 12-point swing, with Romney jumping from an 8-point deficit to a 4-point lead). As more bad news about Libya comes out this week, notably in the House hearings, President Obama will find himself facing questions that can't be answered simply by repeating the fact that Osama bin Laden is dead. Libya has become a new front in the campaign, and Romney appears ready to fight.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.