Mitt Romney’s swift criticism of administration policy amid deadly protests in Libya and violence in Cairo touched a nerve and could mark a turning point for a campaign that has avoided foreign policy and direct engagement with President Obama on the dangers and opportunities of the still-smoldering Arab Spring.
Romney’s campaign insists that it will ignore Wednesday morning's criticism from some media quarters and even surrogates such as former New Hampshire Republican Sen. John Sununu that it jumped the gun. The campaign contends it is determined to use extremist violence in Benghazi and Cairo as a springboard to attack Obama’s approach to the Arab Spring and what Romney considers the administration’s muted and misguided response to the threat of Islamic extremism in countries living through massive political transition.
Even so, Romney starts from behind on foreign policy and his campaign struggled to deal with the initial perception that pouncing on the still-unfolding violence in Libya and Egypt made Romney look more like a political opportunist than a commander in chief. There also is a dispute over the facts of the case.
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If Romney follows through, it will set him on a course to accomplish two goals: deflect criticism of his foreign-policy inexperience leveled by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., at the Democratic National Convention, and force Obama to defend his handling of Islamic extremism and his vision of what the Arab Spring means to the region and U.S. interests there.
In the face of harsh questions about acting rashly or politicizing the death of four U.S. diplomats in Libya — including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens —Romney was undeterred.
“The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions,” Romney said in a statement to reporters on Wednesday morning in Jacksonville, Fla. “It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values. The White House distanced itself last night from the statement, saying it wasn’t cleared by Washington. That reflects the mixed signals they are sending to the world.”
Romney noted that the White House tried to shrug off the statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Romney’s criticism was consistent with his initial statement, released when it was known one U.S. consulate worker had been slain but before the magnitude of the carnage and the death of a U.S. ambassador was known. Romney refused to say whether he would have been so critical of the administration had he known of Stevens’s death.
As to the timing of the statement, Romney rebuffed criticism that he acted rashly, saying protesters were menacing the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and there was no justification for offering any condolences for a Web video critical of the Prophet Mohammed that sparked the violence.
“The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached,” Romney said. “Protesters were inside their grounds. I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values. When our grounds are being attacked and being breached that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for our values is never the right course.”
With this rhetoric, Romney’s signaling he intends to engage Obama in a debate largely overlooked in the course of the presidential campaign — what the U.S. can and should do to guide the development of pluralism and democracy in nations like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen while also containing or eliminating the threat of extremist violence there and other revolutionary tinder boxes in the region. Left out of the equation entirely — as least for today — was the ongoing bloodbath in Syria.
Top Romney advisers said on Wednesday that events in Libya and Egypt demand direct engagement with Obama and that Romney is eager to take the campaign in this new direction. Romney said that Obama can’t blame Embassy personnel in Cairo for the initial statement offering comfort to Muslims offended by the Internet video.
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“The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth but also for the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department,” Romney said. “They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. It was a statement that was akin to an apology and I think was a severe miscalculation.”
Romney has long alleged that Obama has devalued the prestige of the presidency by apologizing for past U.S. foreign-policy actions or misadventures. Obama has denied apologizing but has acknowledged using his rhetoric to acknowledge criticism of U.S. foreign policy as a path to start fresh conversations about global cooperation.
The attacks late Tuesday and Wednesday carried the sledgehammer criticism of apologizing for U.S. values and free speech. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo said it was trying to defend free speech and uphold religious tolerance. In the aftermath of the savage violence and the soon-to-arrive flag-draped coffins of four slain U.S. diplomats, foreign policy and the still-tattered aftermath of the Arab Spring may occupy new and substantive terrain in the presidential debate. Romney vows that they will — regardless of the criticism or second-guessing surrounding him now.