The Accidental Tourist
Mitt Romney got the timeline wrong, but it was no gaffe. He said what he meant.
Photograph by David Calvert/Getty Images.
Mitt Romney did not “gaffe” about the protest at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt or the killing of diplomats at the Benghazi Consulate. The whole concept of the “gaffe” has been Silly-Putty-ed into meaninglessness by campaign 2012, yes, but that’s not what I mean. What Mitt Romney said about the attacks, fact-challenged as it was, synced up neatly with what he’s been saying about foreign policy for years.
To understand this, you have to roll up your sleeves, clear your afternoon, and look at the cover of Romney’s book, No Apology. The candidate’s foreign policy boils down into two big, star-spangled concepts. No. 1: The job of the president is to speak up for America, all the time, through a megaphone if necessary. No. 2: Barack Obama, who does not speak like this, is the second coming of Jimmy Carter.
The embassy debacles in Libya and Egypt allowed Romney to hit both themes. Yes, in order to do that, he had to bungle his timing. Early on Tuesday, before the protests had caused any violence, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo released a statement on a viral and moronic anti-Islam video making the media rounds locally. The embassy criticized “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Romney’s statement got the timing wrong and asserted that the embassy’s statement was “the Obama Administration's first response” to killings. No. It would be hours before the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed.
But Romney’s specific accusation was that the administration “sympathize[d] with those who waged the attacks.” He’s said that for years. In the Romney cosmos, the president is on a constant “apology tour,” one that started in 2009, when he came to Cairo University “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” That, said Romney, was the wrong tone. And when the administration didn’t buck up protests in the wake of rigged Iranian elections, it became a ridiculous tone. “The words spoken by the leader of the free world can expand the frontiers of freedom or shrink them,” wrote Romney in his pre-campaign book.
So Romney viewed the embassy attacks as a way to point this out. As the pot boiled over today, a Romney adviser reminded me that the president gave his first formal post-inauguration TV interview not to Fox News, not to CNN, not to Russia Today, but to al-Arabiya. This was part of the presidential debate, so why not have it out? On Capitol Hill today, it wasn’t hard at all to find Republicans who agreed.
“Gov. Romney, in the big picture, was right,” said Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House homeland security committee. (Like many Republicans who work on security issues, he spent the day in scrums with reporters.) “The only question I would have—again, I’m not running for president—I probably would have waited 12 to 24 hours before I put out a comprehensive statement. It can be misinterpreted when something tragic happens.” But that was literally King’s only question. He counted off a list of apparent sops to violent Muslims, “going back to the president’s apology tour of 2009; the statement put out by the embassy in Egypt [that] was too reflective of an accomodationist mood toward jihadists, toward violence; the treatment of Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
This is what Romney’s foreign-policy shop thinks. By every indication, it’s what he thinks. What might have happened had he made the same timing blunder with his statement but said something innocuous about how all Americans were watching the situation? Nothing. But we wouldn’t have gotten an honest view of Romney’s position.
Republicans and Romney strategists like to compare this campaign to 1980. Obama, they say, is Carter’s clone. The polls broke heavily for Reagan after the 1980 debates; maybe this time, the election will break wide open for Romney. Yesterday, when the words “embassy” appeared on the wires, the Carter comparisons were born anew. The 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis loomed over the entire Reagan-Carter campaign.
Reagan didn’t duck the issue. He ran to Carter’s right, pledging to get the hostages out. After the Desert One debacle in April 1980—an attempt to free the hostages, ruined by local weather conditions—Reagan used it to reiterate his own position. “I support the president in his attempt to rescue our people in Iran," Reagan said at a rally in El Paso, Texas. "As a matter of fact, I would have supported it six months ago.” In the general election, he outsourced the hostage crisis attack to Ted Kennedy, who’d attacked Carter on the issue.
Still, the better analogue for Romney might be Barack Obama himself. In 2007, several times, the then-senator made foreign policy statements that were outside the polite consensus—and thus defined as “gaffes.” Obama said he’d violate Pakistani sovereignty if it would help nab terrorists. Romney, at the time, called that “ill-considered.” Obama never backed down. Later, at a debate where questions came from earnest YouTube members, Obama agreed to meet the leaders of Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela “without preconditions” in his first year as president. That, too, became part of Obama’s “foreign policy,” defended throughout the campaign. Nobody really noticed that Obama broke his promise. He’d previewed the talk-pretty-but-approve-drone-strikes strategy he’d use in office.
Romney’s “gaffe” was in this vein. It was an accidental treatise on a foreign policy that’s getting ignored in the day-to-day. As the hunt for the murderers in Libya goes on, four months before the next presidential inauguration, let’s give him some credit.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.