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With this week's protest, foreign policy has suddenly become an issue in the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney accused President Obama of sympathizing with the people who carried out the attacks. More broadly, Governor Romney says the Obama administration has shown weakness in its dealings with other nations.
As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, it's a theme reminiscent of past presidential campaigns.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Mitt Romney's near constant critique of the Obama foreign policy is that it's based on apology. Two years ago, he published a book titled "No Apology: The Case For American Greatness," and here's what he said last month at an American Legion convention.
MITT ROMNEY: For the past four years, President Obama has allowed our leadership to diminish. In dealings with other nations, he has given trust where it's not earned, insult where it's not deserved and apology where it's not due.
GJELTEN: Fact-checkers say President Obama has not actually apologized to other nations, but Romney's criticism is based on what the president has actually said and done. His 2009 speech in Cairo, for example, where he sought to reach out to the Muslim world. In that speech, Mr. Obama said the United States, after 9/11, on occasion acted, quote, "contrary to our ideals."
For conservative critics, an admission like that, intended to promote a new start in the Middle East, made the U.S. look weak where it needed to project strength. And here's Governor Romney from a campaign speech last March.
ROMNEY: Hope is not a foreign policy. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve backed by our power and our readiness to use it.
GJELTEN: This argument that America is safer when it's feared than when it's liked is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's 1980 criticism of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy.
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PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong. It is when they are weak that tyrants are tempted.
GJELTEN: Governor Romney has encouraged a comparison of himself to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter. But did Ronald Reagan's toughness 'cause U.S. enemies in the Middle East to back off? It was during his presidency that terrorists blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen. One year later, terrorists assassinated a CIA officer in Lebanon.
Moreover, foreign policy successes have involved sweet talk as well as tough talk. Take the lead up to the first Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush. The action was at the United Nations and President Bush's ambassador there, Thomas Pickering, says the emphasis was very much on public outreach.
THOMAS PICKERING: I can remember occasions in the Security Council in 1990 and '91 where the ability to talk to all the members of the Security Council, to all the members of the United Nations and to their publics, all at one time, about what our policy was, what we intended to achieve, what the latest resolution was. And I think it was certainly very useful.
GJELTEN: Pickering says he had no objection to President Obama's Cairo speech. In fact, outreach to the Muslim world was also a priority for George W. Bush. He put his advisor, Karen Hughes, in charge and he appointed a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
KAREN HUGHES: As the president defined the role, it will be to listen, to learn and to foster dialogue, respectful dialogue with the nations of the Islamic conference.
GJELTEN: So what's more important - to show strength and project power or to reach out and listen and even show a little humility on occasion? Thomas Pickering, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, Jordan and Russia, as well as to the United Nations, says it's the combination of force and diplomacy that's important.
PICKERING: As you look at the history of American foreign policy, you find successes that are probably most significant when we have been strong, when we have been confident, but used that confidence to engage in negotiations. Where we have run more into difficulty is in the efforts to try to use military force to short circuit diplomacy or to cut it out entirely.
GJELTEN: It's a lesson that president after president has learned, but a principle that may not fit neatly into the heated rhetoric of a presidential campaign. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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