U.S. Consulate in Benghazi 9/12/2012

I heard Dan Drezner in the car on NPR yesterday talking about whether foreign policy might matter in this election. And, last night and today, with the events in Egypt and Libya, he may be more right than even he anticipated.

We may have an incident, in the wake of the 11th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, that will shape the contours of the election and have wider repercussions for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Politically, does it constitute a disqualifying moment for Mitt Romney?
Like Dan, I’ve been of the mind that foreign policy doesn’t matter for most Americans in this election, and that barring a crisis, Mitt Romney only minimally needed to be seen as above the bar to serve as commander in chief. Foreign policy might affect the election on the margins with military families in key swing states.

As Dan suggested in recent posts, Romney did himself even more damage in recent months and during the convention in which he unnecessarily antagonized our closest allies on his foreign tour and then failed to mention our troops in Afghanistan during his convention speech.

Both actions, somewhat minor at the time, may now be overshadowed by Romney’s ill-timed and intemperate rush to blame the Obama administration for apologizing for actions by private actors in the U.S. that might have outraged Muslims (namely a bizarre and crude anti-Muslim propaganda “film” by a mysterious person who claimed Jewish, American, and Israeli roots who appeared to be none of those things). Never mind that the so-called “apology” was a tweet issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo at a time before the protesters’ attacks were launched where the embassy sought to defuse a volatile situation. Never mind that the Obama administration quickly distanced itself from this tweet.

All of this would have been small beer had it not been for the tragic events that unfolded over the night that took the life of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed by a mob apparently outraged by the same film (or, what may have been an pre-planned attack by Islamists taking advantage of the moment to exact revenge for a recent assassination in Yemen).

All of these events remain murky (here’s a timeline) so what’s the sensible thing for a presidential candidate to do in the face of incomplete information? Well, most Republicans issued outrage about the loss of life of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Senator John McCain, for example, along with Senators Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman issued a statement: “We are anguished and outraged by the death of four citizens of the United States.” Most politicians said something along the lines of President Obama who said that there was “no justification” for the kinds of violence that had occurred in the wake of publicity of the film.

So what did Romney do? Romney issued a statement last night blaming the Obama Administration for what he called a “disgraceful” apology, that is the tweet by the embassy in Cairo:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. 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.

Then, this morning, Romney doubled down with a press conference sandwiched in between Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks and the President’s. By this time, it was clear that the events had escalated in the region and between the time Romney issued his first statement and today, the Obama administration had rejected that so-called apology and, more importantly, our Ambassador in Libya and three other Americans were now dead.

Romney’s statement to rally our country at a potentially perilous moment went like this:

“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

“America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We’ll defend, also, our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion.” 

“Apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

The reaction by many in the media as well as a number of establishment Republicans is that this statement was unseemly and ill-timed political opportunism, especially since the situation is dangerous and as we mourn the loss of life (look at my Twitter feed for today for a long list of detractors like Peggy Noonan, David Frum, Ed Rogers, Joe Scarborough, Nick Burns, even Romney flak John Sununu).

Ben Smith captured a number of off the record reactions by Republicans that were scathing (“Bungle… utter disaster…not ready for prime time… not presidential… Lehman moment.” It is certainly too soon to elevate this moment to be more than it is, but the swift condemnation by both the media and many Republican insiders could redound upon those handful of undecideds for whom presidential candidates must at least meet a basic threshold of competency.

Beyond the politics, with the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan especially volatile, the next 24 to 48 hours may determine whether or not this moment is more consequential in terms of U.S. interests in the region. While the Libyan government has repudiated these attacks, Egypt’s leader Mohamed Morsi was slow to condemn them. Let’s hope the situation settles down and this doesn’t become a bigger issue.

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