I am not a foreign policy expert, and I could not even pretend to be. I do pretend to know a few things about politics in this country, however, and over the past 48 hours, Mitt Romney has failed the political moment test in historic fashion. As one pundit opined, this might have been his Lehman Brothers moment. Time will tell.
Here is the background:
An anti-Muslim filmmaker posts a trailer for the film that depicts the prophet Muhammad in an insulting manner.
The trailer is mentioned in an Arabic-language blog post and English-language e-mail newsletter, which also publicizes the latest stunt by Terry Jones — the Florida pastor who was chastised worldwide in 2011 for burning a Koran.
On September 9th, Egyptian television airs a scene from the film.
On September 11th, 6 hours before the attack begins, our embassy in Egypt releases the following statement:
“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. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Attacks occur in Libya and Egypt against our embassies. In Libya, 4 are killed including our ambassador, but this is not immediately known.
10:09 p.m. ET on the 11th: The Romney campaign issues a statement signed by Mitt Romney condemning the Obama administration for the Cairo embassy’s repudiation of religiously insensitive speech. It falsely suggests that the Cairo embassy’s condemnation came in response to the attacks in both Egypt and Libya. The attacks had not yet occurred when the statement was released.
His signed statement reads:
“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.”
The statement is embargoed — meaning the press cannot report on it — until midnight, Sept. 12th — the moment the Obama and Romney campaigns’ Sept. 11 truce is scheduled to end.
10:25 p.m. ET: Without explanation, the Romney campaign lifts its embargo on Romney’s statement and it becomes public. The date is still September 11th.
At 12:01 a.m. ET, as soon as the September 11th date has passed, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus tweets the following: “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”
At this point, I will pause and comment on how sad and pathetic this tweet is. First of all, Obama did nothing of the sort. Secondly, to accuse the President of terrorist sympathies while the attacks are in process is wrong, insensitive, tone-deaf, embarrassing, insert your own pejorative here.
Obama did not release the statement in question; the statement was released by the embassy before any attacks had taken place; Romney responded without all the facts; the RNC Chair piled on and looks even worse given the circumstances; and the embassy statement differs little from previous administration statements on the same topic:
· Bush/Cheney administration condemned European caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006, saying, ''We find them offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive.''
· In 2008 President Bush apologized to Iraq's prime minister for an American sniper's shooting of a Quran.
· In 2011, when that fringe Florida pastor caused riots abroad by announcing plans to burn Qurans, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo condemned the stunt, saying in a statement that "Since the founding of our nation, the United States has upheld the principles of tolerance and respect for religious freedom."
I am not sure why these GOP administration statements are viewed by Romney as diplomacy while an officially disavowed statement by the embassy under Obama’s administration is viewed as “apologizing for American values.” Actually, I do know why. Cheap political points.
Obama, unfortunately for Romney, played the role of a statesman in charge. Referring to the statement released by our embassy in Egypt, he said:
“In an effort to cool the situation down, it didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton, it came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger, and my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.”
That is not only the correct answer, but it included a nice zinger. Ouch.
During another interview (CBS News), Obama went too far (could have stayed above the fray), but he was responding to a direct question so he went for it: "There's a broader lesson to be learned here: Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later and as president one of the things I've learned is you can't do that. It's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts and that you've thought through the ramifications before you make them."
Another zinger and another ouch. Like how he mentioned ‘facts’.
Obama was not alone in his view that Romney’s knee-jerk statement was off the mark. Conservatives, theoretically his people, have piled on.
The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, told Fox News she doesn’t feel that the Republican presidential nominee “has been doing himself any favors” in the past few hours.
“I was thinking as he spoke, I think I belong to the old school of thinking that in times of great drama and heightened crisis, and in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go. When you step forward in the midst of a political environment and start giving statements on something dramatic and violent that has happened, you're always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things politically.”
“Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go.”
Mark Halperin, of Newsweek called this the "most craven" and "ill-advised move" of the 2012 campaign.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said “I don’t think the president sympathizes with those who perpetrated these attacks.”
Former Sen. John Sununu, a Romney surrogate, told MSNBC that “You look at the way things unfolded, you look at the timing of it — they probably should have waited.” He was being kind.
The GOP political class did not throw Romney a lifeline either. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell issued statements, but neither repeated nor commented on Romney’s attack line.
Top foreign-policy surrogates like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made no mention of Romney in their statements condemning the attacks, with McCain even tweeting support for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And Romney running mate Paul Ryan, asked explicitly how a Romney-Ryan administration would have handled the situation differently during a town hall meeting in Wisconsin, simply said it was “very important that a president speak with a singular voice.” Even his own guy will not join Romney in his attack line. It must be lonely at the top.
Of course, Romney did have one supporter. Sen. Jon Kyl (AZ), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, told reporters that the embassy statement condemning the anti-Muslim movie was akin to blaming a victim for rape. Is it me, or does every issue for the Far Right come back to an analogy that includes violence against women? With friends like Kyl, who needs enemies?
Mitt’s campaign tried to come to his defense. Here’s the clumsy quote from Richard Williamson, former envoy to the Sudan and current Romney foreign policy advisor, responding to questions about Romney’s attack against Obama:
“Ty Cobb was the greatest hitter of all time and he batted about .355. And he is still the greatest hitter. There isn’t something in my 63 years I couldn’t have done better except con my wife into marrying me.”
So Romney’s foreign policy advisor, tacitly admitting that this Romney move was a swing and a miss, suggests that striking out 6 ½ times out of ten is Hall of Fame caliber in politics, governance, and baseball. Really? If Romney is wrong significantly more often than he is right, his presidency will be judged as Hall of Fame caliber? I don’t think so. These are his friends who will help him govern. Oh my.
I understand why Romney decided he had to toss this ill-advised attack. The Far Right is nervous and they are goading him into doing dumb things. A few days before, Sarah Palin said Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign should be “severely aggressive” in attacking President Barack Obama as “incompetent” and a “socialist.” Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly agreed. Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham suggested this week the GOP should disband if they aren’t able to defeat Obama. Joe Scarborough agreed and wrote an op-ed that says just that. So we should forgive Mitt if he sounds desperate. He is because his party is scared.
There can be legitimate questions regarding Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring and relations with these Muslim nations with new leadership, but these questions can be raised without accusing the President of sympathy for terrorism during a time of military crisis.
Mourn the loss of life, condemn the violence, mention that there will be a time to debate the President’s Middle East policies, particularly with regards to the Arab Spring uprisings once our embassies and our citizens are secure…something like that, and let the media ask Obama the questions.
Four years ago almost to the day, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global economy was on the brink. John McCain reacted rashly, and called for a suspension of his campaign and the upcoming debates so he could save the world from fiscal darkness. The contrast to a calm and cool Obama in that moment is seen by many as the turning point in the 2008 election. When the history books of the period are written, this may be called Romney’s Cairo Moment, the moment when he lost the election.
UPDATE: Romney must be listening to the backlash. At his event in Fairfax, VA today, he did not mention his criticism at all. I am sure he hopes we forget...