ON TUESDAY NIGHT, after the first reports that an American consular official had been killed by Libyan protesters, inflamed by an anti-Muslim video on YouTube, Mitt Romney issued a fateful statement: “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.”
A chorus of critics, including some conservatives, has since condemned the Republican presidential nominee for launching a political attack in the midst of a crisis. And Romney’s timing was, indeed, terrible. But his statement was offensive on many other levels.
Romney was wrong on the facts. The alleged expression of sympathy was issued not by President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but by the US embassy in Cairo, in response to protests in Egypt. It came before protesters had breached the walls of the Cairo embassy, and before any reports of deaths in Libya.
Romney was wrong on substance. The statement from the Cairo embassy said the United States condemns “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” In the midst of massing protests, this statement was a wise act of diplomacy. It sought to correct the notion that the US government was somehow responsible for the YouTube video. It aimed to quell the protests and prevent bloodshed.
Romney was wrong as a matter of policy. As the candidate explained at a press conference Wednesday morning, he lashed out at the Cairo statement because it amounted to “an apology for American values.” Romney has relentlessly portrayed Obama’s efforts to present American actions in terms likely to lessen tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere as “apologies,” without any real evidence. He still has none. The Cairo statement was, in fact, an affirmation of an American value — the freedom of religion.
On Wednesday morning, Romney proudly noted that even the Obama administration had distanced itself from the Cairo statement. Not quite. The administration made the point that the statement came from the embassy, not Washington, a confusion engendered by Romney himself.
Not much is known about Romney’s views on foreign policy, and he benefits from the perception that, because he is bright and well-informed on other issues, he therefore would be a responsible steward of American diplomacy. But his actions on the campaign trail belie this image. He has been only too eager to revive the Bush-era approach of tough talk and military action as the default responses to threats in the world — an approach that proved utterly ineffective at thwarting guerrilla actions such as the one that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Libya.
Romney’s actions raise more doubts about himself than Obama.