Mr. Romney’s criticism fed into his larger theme of painting Mr. Obama as apologizing for the United States, and his team stuck by it. “While there may be differences of opinion regarding issues of timing,” said one senior strategist, who asked not to be named, “I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”
As it happened, the debate over his comments drew attention away from questions about how Mr. Obama has 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.
That instant conventional wisdom is a pretty fortunate turn of events for Obama, given that it diverted focus from his administration’s bungled handling of the entire situation and the failure of his broader foreign policy posture…
When Romney gave a press conference Wednesday, the questions focused on whether it was appropriate for him to criticize Obama at the time he did. Romney’s responses didn’t really matter, because reporters had already decided their narrative. Obama did not take any questions in his own press conference moments later.
In 2004, John Kerry routinely attacked President Bush’s handling of Iraq when things weren’t going well in the country. And the media dutifully reported on Bush’s foreign policy blunders in Iraq. But now, instead of scrutinizing Obama’s handling of a foreign policy crisis, the media has decided that the real story in Egypt and Libya is a Mitt Romney gaffe.
“They were just trying to score a cheap news cycle hit based on the embassy statement and now it’s just completely blown up,” said a very senior Republican foreign policy hand, who called the statement an “utter disaster” and a “Lehman moment” — a parallel to the moment when John McCain, amid the 2008 financial crisis, failed to come across as a steady leader…
“I guess we see now that it is because they’re incompetent at talking effectively about foreign policy,” said the Republican. “This is just unbelievable — when they decide to play on it they completely bungle it.”
“It’s bad,” said a former aide to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Just on a factual level that the statement was not a response but preceding, or one could make the case precipitating. And just calling it a ‘disgrace’ doesn’t really cut it. Not ready for prime time.”
Whatever the timing of the Cairo Embassy’s statements, Mr. Romney is right that a U.S. Embassy ought to ignore YouTube videos produced by obscure cranks. As Tuesday’s events showed, pandering to Islamists who would use the video to inflame anti-American sentiment isn’t going to stop the protests. The video “Innocence of Muslims” is inflammatory and its producer is a fool, but in the U.S. we don’t censor fools.
The broader point is that the attacks on the embassies do raise questions about how America has fared in the world in the last four years. (See above.) Throughout his candidacy, Mr. Romney has supported the necessity of America’s global leadership, sometimes against the wishes of Republican voters. His comments this week are consistent with that worldview, which is also consistent with that of every recent conservative President.
His political faux pax was to offend a pundit class that wants to cede the foreign policy debate to Mr. Obama without thinking seriously about the trouble for America that is building in the world.
Mark Halperin tweeted this morning, “Unless Mitt has gamed crisis out in some manner completely invisible to Gang of 500, doubling down=most craven + ill-advised move of ‘12.” Halperin couldn’t be more wrong. Romney is right to bring home the weakness of the Obama administration, exemplified in the disgraceful statement issued yesterday, September 11, by the American embassy in Cairo—a statement, I believe, that would have to have been cleared by the State Department.
I’d add this: Romney deserves credit for emphasizing today that the events in Cairo and Benghazi remind us of the need for American leadership. He refused to cater to what must be a widespread (and understandable, if short-sighted) ‘let’s just get out of that crazy part of the world’ sentiment among the public. He spoke in the tradition of conservative internationalism.
So, so far, I believe, pretty much so good. The question is, what comes next?
“The substance of what Romney said at the time was absolutely right,” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said about the situation in Libya and Egypt on “Special Report” tonight. “The problem is he needs to make a larger argument. There is a collapse of Obama’s policy. It began with the Cairo speech, it began with the apologies to Iran. It began with regret for the Iraq war, it began with the so-called outreach and it completely collapsed. It has gotten nowhere on Iran. These are the fruits of appeasement and apology.”
“He should make a general speech, not attack here and there but a speech explaining and connecting all the dots. That’s what a candidate ought to do and to leave attacks to surrogates and to Ryan,” Krauthammer said.
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