Thursday, September 13, 2012

In reacting to the violence in Egypt and Libya, Mitt Romney proves he's unfit for the presidency

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Unqualified, unprepared, unfit.

Even by the embarrassingly low standards (and utter disregard for the truth) he has brought to the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney's self-serving politicization of the events in Egypt and Libya, including the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three of his aides, marked a new low:

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.

Actually, there was no sympathizing at all -- and certainly not from the White House. The U.S. embassy in Cairo, confronted with possibly violent protests, issued an entirely sensible statement criticizing "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." Both the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately distanced themselves from the embassy's comments, with an Obama administration official saying, "[t]he statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government."

Reaction has been swift -- and overwhelming negative for Romney. (Notably, RNC Chair Reince Priebus, who rivals Romney on the dishonesty front, was even more blatant, tweeting: "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.") He has a few supporters, usual suspects like Bill Kristol (more on him in a moment) and others on the knee-jerk jingoist right, but otherwise he is being criticized from all sides:

Mitt Romney's sharply-worded attack on President Obama over a pair of deadly riots in Muslim countries last night has backfired badly among foreign policy hands of both parties, who cast it as hasty and off-key, released before the facts were clear at what has become a moment of tragedy.

Romney keyed his statement to the American Embassy in Cairo's condemnation of an anti-Muslim video that served as the trigger for the latest in a series of regional riots over obscure perceived slights to the faith. But his statement — initially embargoed to avoid release on September 11, then released yesterday evening anyway — came just before news that the American Ambassador to Libya had been killed and broke with a tradition of unity around national tragedies, and of avoiding hasty statements on foreign policy. It was the second time Romney has been burned by an early statement on a complex crisis: Romney denounced the Obama Administration's handling of a Chinese dissident's escape just as the Administration negotiated behind the scenes for his departure from the country.

"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.


The pundits' judgment was harsh. Time's Mark Halperin said Romney's "doubling down on criticism of the President for the statement coming out of Cairo is likely to be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign." A senior Republican told BuzzFeed's Ben Smith it was Romney's "Lehman moment," a reference to John McCain's hasty reaction to the 2008 financial crisis -- a turning point in the last presidential campaign. Conservative pundit Matt Lewis wrote in the Daily Caller, "The problem with Mitt Romney continues to be Mitt Romney," comparing his reaction to the way Michael Dukakis was parodied as "weak and passionless" on Saturday Night Live. On Fox News, conservative commentator and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said, "In times of great drama and heightened crisis ... I always think discretion is the better way to go," saying Romney was leaving himself open to accusations of politicizing a tragedy. "I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours," she said. Though Romney had his defenders as well, the gelling consensus was clearly against him.

Kristol seems to think there's some hope: "If Romney can prove both strong and thoughtful on foreign policy over the next few days, it could be an inflection point in the presidential campaign."

How utterly ridiculous. This could very well turn out to be an inflection point in the campaign, but if so it won't be in Romney's favor. And that's because, among other things, Romney isn't, and won't be in the immediate future (if ever), "strong and thoughtful on foreign policy." It is simply delusional to think that he'll be able to turn this massive blunder into a positive, let alone into something that could shape the rest of the campaign, possibly propelling him to victory. If you think that, you apparently know nothing of Mitt Romney.

He's embarrassed himself before, of course, notably when he went to London for the Olympics and managed to turn Prime Minister Cameron, Mayor Boris Johnson, and pretty much the entirety of the British people against him. And he's proven himself before to be grossly ignorant on matters of foreign policy and international affairs, such as when he called Russia America's #1 enemy, as if somehow we're back in the coldest days of the Cold War.

But this was different -- and for Romney, a different sort of test as he seeks the presidency. It was one of those "3 am" moments: what do you do when faced with a sudden crisis in the middle of the night? There are some who prove to be leaders and other who prove to be anything but. As has been the case throughout his presidency, Obama responded with dignity and gravity -- with leadership. (Including by not overreacting to the Cairo embassy's comments and understanding that the intention was to try to prevent violence: "It came from people on the ground, who are potentially in danger. You know, my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they're in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.") In contrast, Romney used the occasion to politicize a tragedy and smear the president, responding with knee-jerk jingoism and a reckless temperament well before the facts were known. That's not what a president does, and it proves once more that he's not even close to being ready for the job.

But, really, what else should we have expected? Nothing. This is a guy who thinks that America is still embroiled in the Cold War and that the best way to deal with China is to try to bully it into submission, and who otherwise has spent the past several years accusing President Obama, without any basis at all and one of the clearest examples of his utter disregard for the truth and willingness to say anything for votes, of apologizing for America abroad. Indeed, as Jon Chait writes, "Romney's strategy here was a perfectly straightforward application of the foreign-policy principles that have guided his campaign from the outset":

And so, when militant Islamists attacked an American embassy, Romney automatically reverted to this line, releasing a statement charging "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." This was triply false: (1) The statement in question was not made by the Obama administration but by the embassy staff, (2) it was not a response to the attacks but a (justifiably panicked) attempt to preempt them, in keeping with a long-standing bipartisan practice of distancing the U.S. from inflammatory religious provocation, and (3) it was not an expression of sympathy with attackers or other militants.


The miscalculation at work here is that Romney believed his "Apology Tour" method would neatly fit the events at hand — take an event that sort of vaguely resembled an Obama apology to Muslims who don't like us, twist it around, and call it a day. But Romney had grown accustomed to spinning fantasies cobbled together from months-old Obama speeches and nurtured into legend by extensive repetition and exaggeration in the conservative subculture. What he failed to realize from the outset was that the embassy attack was an immediate, high-profile event that he could not hope to rewrite so brazenly. Forced to confront the yawning chasm between reality and the fantasy he had wallowed in so long, Romney was exposed and, justifiably, discredited.

As I said, even by Romney's already pathetically low standards, this was truly abysmal. And if there's anyone who's weaking and disrespecting America, it's not Obama, it's Romney, who in criticizing the president like this weakened America's standing and credibility (proving once more that Republicans on the whole are indeed the disloyal opposition out for themselves) at a time when everyone should have rallied behind the president following a tragedy, waited for the facts to come in, and recognized that the issue of U.S.-Muslim relations isn't black-and-white (as even George W. Bush recognized) but filled with the sort of complexity and nuance that makes foreign policy and international affairs so challenging.

Indeed, instead of walking back his initial statement somewhat, Romney doubled down: "I think it's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values." Again, no one is doing this, President Obama included. It's like Romney just can't get past this little lie of a smear-laden narrative that seems to be the very core of his thinking about foreign policy.

It remains to be seen how much this thorough discrediting will hurt Romney. Maybe he'll be able to pick himself back up by turning the campaign back to the economy. Or maybe this story will simply fade over the coming days, the short-attention-span media turning to other matters.

But one thing's for sure: Once more, Mitt Romney has proven that he's unfit for the presidency. He may still win a tight race at a time of economic difficulty, but it's hard to see how he overcomes his massive ignorance, appalling recklessness, and self-serving opportunism between now and election day.

Thankfully, he keeps reminding us just how unfit he really is.

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  • As an Independent,who has given Romney every possible chance in the world, I can't fathom how anyone could even think about voting for him after this debackle! All he seems to care about is winning. Not about the American people and certainly not about the middle class. I will cast my vote for Obama so that we don't aliente the whole world and end up in WWIII for no good reason if BaffoonMitt takes the helm!!!!

    By Anonymous Bill Devreys, at 6:22 PM  

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