The Right Response to the Libya and Egypt Attacks
Which politicians responded forcefully and eloquently, and which ones smirked?
Third and finally, these events have highlighted just how stunningly unready Mitt Romney is for prime time—how little he understands the business of being president or, for that matter, holding any post of national leadership in American politics.
Early this morning, Romney issued a statement that condemned not only the attackers on the embassies but also the Obama administration for sympathizing with the attackers. Neither Obama nor his officials had done any such thing. For a little while, it looked like Romney might have merely misunderstood the chronology of events. He criticized the embassy in Cairo for issuing a statement deploring “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Romney depicted this statement as a shocking “apology” for the “American principles” of free speech and an act of appeasement in the face of an attack on sovereign U.S. territory.
What Romney or his staff might not have known at the time was that the embassy issued this appeal six hours before the protesters assaulted the walls. After the walls were breached, the embassy put out a revised statement, condemning the attack. (The revision, however, did reaffirm the sentiment of the original statement—an affirmation that Obama spokesmen disavowed, saying it had not been cleared with Washington.)
After these facts became clear (along with reports of Stevens’ death, which he hadn’t known about), Romney could have backpedaled. But instead the Republican presidential hopeful stepped on the gas. He held a press conference—just minutes before President Obama was scheduled to speak—and repeated his attacks. Worse yet, he spoke his lines with a slight smirk, as if taking undisguised delight at scoring political points. When a reporter asked what he would have done differently had he been president, he had no answer. Instead he repeated his line that Obama’s embassy was “apologizing for American principles” and that, when these things happen, “you speak out.”
No other prominent Republican, even those who have vigorously criticized Obama in the past, has spoken out against the president on this issue. Sens. John McCain and Mitch McConnell, as well as House Speaker John Boehner, have stepped before microphones to condemn the attacks, mourn the deaths, and assert American unity in seeking justice. These politicians know, as Romney apparently doesn’t, that in these sorts of crises, the proper thing to do is to rally around the flag.
Ironically, it’s also the politically smart thing to do. Imagine if Romney had called President Obama, asked how he could be of assistance in this time of crisis, offered to appear at his side at a press conference to demonstrate that, when American lives are at risk, politics stop at the water’s edge—and then had his staff put out the word that he’d done these things, which would have made him look noble and might have made Obama look like the petty one if he’d waved away these offers.
But none of this is in Romney. He imagined a chink in Obama’s armor, an opening for a political assault on the president’s strength and leadership, and so he dashed to the barricades without a moment of reflection, a nod to propriety, or a smidgen of good strategy.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.