In a testy exchange with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, James Baker, then the U.S. secretary of state, set a standard in fantasy counterfactuals that I was sure could never be topped.
Responding to Assad, who wanted the United States to force Israel off the Golan Heights, Baker bluntly responded, "Yeah, and if a frog could fly, it wouldn't drag its balls on the ground."
I was wrong. Last week's assertion by a Mitt Romney advisor that, had his guy been president, the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi might not have taken place takes fantastical thinking to new levels.
After all, Baker was just kidding. Romney's guy may actually have been serious.
What's going on here? Is the Romney claim willful delusion -- just plain old campaign bluster -- or is there a serious point hiding behind the politics and the hyperbole?
Counterfactuals are fascinating exercises. What would have happened to the United States during the Great Depression and World War II if on that night in Miami in February 1933, one month before he was to be inaugurated, a mentally ill Italian bricklayer had succeeded in his attempt to assassinate FDR? The world will never know -- but that won't stop anyone from speculating.
But in this case, the assertions of Romney's foreign policy prowess are a useful point of departure to offer up a few observations on the governor and his putative approach to the Middle East.
Before we start, some disclosure is in order. This really isn't a partisan political analysis. I worked and voted for Republicans and Democrats and am not attached, affiliated, or all that enamored by either campaign.
In fact I've come to identify the key dividing line for success in American political life as one not between left or right, Democratic or Republican, or liberal or conservative -- but between dumb and smart. And I want to be on the smart side.
So what are we to make of Romney's "I can protect America in the Middle East better than you can" claims?
First, without engaging in any gratuitous Romney bashing, I think it's pretty evident to any objective observer that he hasn't turned in a terribly strong performance to date on the foreign-policy front. He's had more than his allowed quota of gaffes. By criticizing the Brits as Olympic hosts in the midst of one of the happier times in their national life since they lost their Empire and offending the Palestinians by praising Israeli culture, Romney demonstrated a propensity for wandering off the highway into irrelevancies and self-inflicted wounds.
The governor's own views on critical issues -- such as the "red line" for an American strike against Iran's nuclear sites -- have also been confusing and ambiguous. As recently as last week, Romney was still offering contradictory assessments of the threshold for military action: Was it Iran's acquiring the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, or producing the weapon itself?
Then of course there was the ill-timed, ill-advised blast at President Barack Obama's alleged weakness and fecklessness in responding to the attack on the Cairo embassy -- a statement that proved to be somewhat premature, and sent a signal that the governor had been too eager to jump on Obama and to politicize a foreign policy issue at the wrong time.
None of this, of course, is fatal. Candidates have been exaggerating and sticking their feet in their mouths since the early days of the republic. And with a little spit, polish, and a few good talking points and briefings, these candidates -- red, blue, purple -- have done quite well as president on the foreign-policy front.