Mitt Romney has picked a big fight fraught with political risks amid an ongoing foreign-policy crisis with heartbreaking and murderous consequences for the U.S. diplomatic corps.
And by the end of the day on Wednesday, he walked straight into a forearm shiver from the commander-in-chief—one that may leave a mark and intensify scrutiny of Romney’s foreign-policy qualifications.
“Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first, aim later,” President Obama told CBS News in an interview conducted by correspondent Steve Kroft. “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."
When Kroft asked Obama if he was accusing Romney of being irresponsible, the president said: “I’ll let the American people judge that.”
Romney and his entire team dug in amid criticism from Democrats and public second-guessing in some Republican quarters about the wisdom of using a foreign-policy crisis that left four Americans dead to initiate a broader debate with Obama on his post-Arab Spring policies. The core of Romney’s criticism was that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo sought to appease menacing protesters threatening their compound and did not immediately denounce them or Libyan protesters after U.S. diplomatic territory in both nations was compromised.
The GOP nominee blasted the statement as a sign of weakness amid a gathering threat—something he and other Republicans said reflected a central flaw of Obama’s policies throughout the region. (Read the U.S. Embassy statement here.)
Until the CBS interview, Obama and other government officials focused on expressions of grief for the lives lost, a condemnation of the violence, and guarantees of justice for the perpetrators. In the swirl of sadness and the need for calm, Obama ignored Romney until the official work of acknowledging the deaths and putting the mayhem in context was complete. Obama’s campaign expressed shock that Romney would pounce amid so much tragedy and counted on the contrast between Romney and Obama to serve the president well.
Romney’s criticism came amid a swirl of news bursts from Benghazi, Libya, where it now appears a premeditated terrorist attack was launched with military precision against the U.S. Consulate. In the smoking aftermath of fire and destruction, four consulate personnel, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, lay dead.
Two senior Romney advisers told National Journal that the campaign doesn’t care that the statement it criticized was issued long before U.S. grounds were breached. The larger point, the advisers said, was that neither the Obama State Department nor the White House withdrew it or repudiated it while the crisis was unfolding in Cairo or in the streets outside the consulate in Benghazi. The White House began distancing itself from the original Cairo embassy statement after Romney leveled his criticism shortly after 10 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday.
“That was the wrong path. It didn’t work. Under Governor Romney we will defend free speech. And we don’t apologize,” one adviser said.
Romney injected himself into both fast-moving situations, putting politics squarely into the maze of U.S. foreign-policy crisis management. Romney’s team acknowledged the inherent risks, but said that the time had come for a debate over the future of the Arab Spring and the threat of Islamic extremists seeking political and military clout in nations emerging from dictatorship.
Some conservative Republicans came to Romney’s defense. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., called Romney’s criticism “absolutely right.” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., complained of Obama’s “foreign policy of appeasement and apology.” And House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said Obama has “met threats and thugs with apologies and concessions.”
But there was some criticism, bewilderment, and plenty of mostly silence from others.
Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush, said, “Frankly, the charges he made were not only completely untrue but reckless and irresponsible.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC, “I’m not exactly sure what Governor Romney was talking about.”
In a joint statement, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—as well as independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucuses with Democrats—focused all their attention on condolences for the victims’ families and calls for justice. They offered no criticism of the Obama administration’s Cairo statement. On the House side, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., similarly ignored Romney’s bid to turn the protests and tragedy into a watershed political moment.
Romney, it appears, rallied some of the GOP base around his condemnation of the administration’s initial response to the protests in Egypt and Libya. But the larger question—as ever—will be if Romney’s hard-edged criticism amid the tragedy will be seen by undecided voters as a sign of foreign-policy steel and insight, or as crass and possibly inept opportunism