Attack ads on this subject will be plentiful come fall but few will have as much flair as this one from Rove’s group American Crossroads. Whoever came up with “Vladimir Putin as himself” should be a humor consultant on all GOP attack ads through the end of the year.

No surprise that this is rolling out as Romney starts to hammer Obama on foreign policy. The WSJ asks a question that I’ve wondered about myself, though: How much of Romney’s foreign-policy rhetoric is based on actual geopolitical strategy and how much is simple “whatever Obama’s doing with respect to country X is pathetically wrong” contrarianism?

“I think Obama’s foreign policy is seriously flawed, but I worry that too much of Romney’s criticism is driven by what he thinks is best politically, and not by any larger strategic vision,” said Dimitri Simes, a Russia expert who was a Romney foreign-policy adviser in 2008…

“Romney keeps staking out positions that are meant to be sharply at odds with Obama, but also happen to be at odds with what he would have to do if he were president,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to five secretaries of state going back to the Reagan administration…

Mr. Romney has been critical of Obama policies toward China, accusing Mr. Obama of being a “near supplicant to Beijing.” He has promised to impose sanctions on China over its currency policies on his first day in office.

But Robert Kagan, another of Mr. Romney’s top foreign-policy aides, has singled out Mr. Obama’s diplomacy in Asia as one of the White House’s chief foreign-policy accomplishments. Two of Mr. Romney’s top economic advisers, Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw, have also urged a softer line toward China on its currency.

I don’t think it’s a huge deal to be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian on foreign policy. Except for bold promises made on matters that the public’s keenly interested in (e.g., “I’ll end the war”), voters likely don’t even remember most of the foreign-policy verbiage they hear during the campaign. And to the extent that they do, they’ll cut the president slack that they won’t cut him on domestic policy because the many variables outside his control in foreign affairs sometimes force him to shift from his preferred approach. Two points, though. One: If Romney’s treating his hawkish FP rhetoric as just another matter that can be Etch-a-Sketched away for centrist voters once the general election campaign begins, then the knocks on Obama for being duplicitous in his intentions towards Russia start to have less bite. If your party’s set to nominate Mitt Romney then there’s a limit on how much you can go around fingerpointing about “flexibility.”

Two: As Simes and Miller note in the excerpt, there is potentially a cost to all this tough talk if Romney wins in November and suddenly has to co-exist with Putin. I can understand him being willing to risk that if it would give him a serious electoral advantage over The One, but barring something truly sensational happening internationally before November (e.g., a strike on Iran), foreign policy’s not going to decide the election. The election is about the economy and, more broadly, America deciding how big it can afford its federal government to be. And when push comes to shove, it’s very hard to out-hawk the guy who gave the order to kill Bin Laden and who’s liquidated many a filthbag jihadi in Pakistan’s tribal areas. You can argue that that’s one small part of a much bigger picture on foreign policy, but like I say, I think voters draw conclusions from bold strokes in this area. Killing the architect of 9/11 is as bold as it gets. Hard to convince people he’s an appeaser, no matter how clammy his hot mic comments to Medvedev were.

Exit question: Is Mitt going to try to reflexively outhawk Obama on Afghanistan too? Because that would be an exceedingly poor idea.