A Challenger’s Criticism Is Furiously Returned
By Peter Baker and Ashley Parker, NY Times, September 12, 2012
WASHINGTON—The deadly attack on an American diplomatic post in Libya propelled foreign policy to the forefront of an otherwise inward-looking presidential campaign and presented an unexpected test not only to the incumbent, who must manage an international crisis, but also to the challenger, whose response quickly came under fire.
While President Obama dealt with the killings of an ambassador and three other Americans and deflected questions about his handling of the Arab world, Mitt Romney, the Republican seeking his job, wasted little time going on the attack, accusing the president of apologizing for American values and appeasing Islamic extremists.
But Mr. Romney came under withering criticism for distorting the chain of events overseas and appearing to seek political advantage from an attack that claimed American lives. A statement he personally approved characterized an appeal for religious tolerance issued by the American Embassy in Cairo as sympathy for the attackers even though the violence did not occur until hours after the embassy statement. Mr. Romney on Wednesday said the embassy statement, which was disavowed by the administration, was “akin to apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation.”
Mr. Obama fired back later in the day, accusing his opponent of politicizing a national tragedy. “Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” he told CBS News for its “60 Minutes” program. “And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that—that, you know, 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.”
The harsh exchanges had their origins on Tuesday night as Mr. Romney’s team was following the increasingly volatile developments in the Middle East. The embassy statement, issued hours before protests in Cairo and the attack in Libya began, had tried to mollify Muslims upset at an American-made anti-Islam video. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the statement said.
For Mr. Romney, whose 2010 book, “No Apology,” assailed Mr. Obama for what he saw as trying to placate America’s enemies, the embassy statement rankled. When aides showed it to him, they said he reacted strongly to the notion of “hurt” religious feelings. In his mind, they said, the Obama administration was aligning itself with those who would do harm to the United States. Already on the defensive for not mentioning Afghanistan in his convention speech and losing some ground in recent polls, Mr. Romney saw an opportunity to draw a stark contrast.
He personally read and approved his campaign’s statement before it was sent out at 10:10 p.m. Tuesday. “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,” it said.
The resulting episode was perhaps the most vivid confrontation over events abroad since the general election began taking shape, and it ended up putting Mr. Romney on the defensive as he sought to define his differences with the president and demonstrate his bona fides as a potential commander in chief. The debate over his comments drew attention from questions about how Mr. Obama had managed the popular uprisings in the Arab world, the aftermath of the war in Libya and the broader battle against Islamic extremists. The president has been criticized for not doing more to guide the transition to democracy in the Middle East and to stop religious extremists from coming to power.
The attack in Libya and the protest in Egypt came as Mr. Obama was already struggling to tamp down a dispute with Israeli leaders that has fueled Mr. Romney’s critique of the president’s foreign policy. Accused of not drawing firm lines over Iran’s nuclear program and refusing to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel during his scheduled visit to the United States this month, Mr. Obama picked up the telephone on Tuesday night and called the Israeli leader to hash over their differences for an hour.
In the midst of that, White House officials saw Mr. Romney’s denunciation of the Cairo embassy statement. They, too, decided the embassy language went too far without standing firm against potential violence; officials privately told reporters it was not cleared in Washington. The embassy reaffirmed the statement even after protests began, posting a message on Twitter that it “still stands,” but then tried to delete that message.
By Wednesday morning, when it became public that four Americans had been killed in an attack at the mission in Benghazi, Mr. Romney’s initial statement looked clumsy and badly timed to many, and Republicans like Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, and John E. Sununu, the former New Hampshire senator, publicly criticized it.
Rather than back away, Mr. Romney doubled down with reporters in Jacksonville, where he denounced Mr. Obama for not defending the filmmakers’ free speech rights. “Apology for America’s values is never the right course,” Mr. Romney said. He argued that the White House disavowal of the statement showed that the administration, too, realized it was wrong.
Democrats pounced. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said Mr. Romney showed “a degree of instability” and demonstrated that “there is almost nothing he won’t do for political gain.”
Mr. Romney’s camp was surprised by the blowback. “While there may be differences of opinion regarding issues of timing,” Mr. Chen said, “I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”