Mitt Romney's follow-up statement on Wednesday morning on the attacks in Libya and American deaths
The 11th anniversary of the attacks of 9-11 began in US with muted, apolitical coverage. In New York City, for the first time since the attacks, no elected officials spoke at the official ceremony. The two Presidential campaigns withdrew negative ads in deference to a day of contemplation about the post-9/11 sacrifices by service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, late that evening the Romney campaign prepared a statement criticising the Obama Administration for its reaction to the unfolding demonstrations at the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Romney's press secretary released the statement at 10:09 p.m. Eastern Time, with the contents not to be used until after midnight. However, 15 minutes later the restriction was lifted
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo posted his response to the statement at 11:32 p.m., under the headline "His True Colors". At that time, only one American death had been reported from violence at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya; however, as Marshall noted, this passage of the Romney statement was based on a falsehood:
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.
Romney's reference to the "administration's first response" --- deliberately or by mistake ---- was to a press release from the US Embassy in Cairo which was distributed before any protests, let alone the death in Benghazi. The Embassy, anticipating anger over a US-produced film about the Prophet Mohammad amid Egyptian media reports, said:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims --- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
On Twitter, the Embassy replied to messages, such as “Allowing such as this movie to be released will lead to serious consequences and will increase hatred, STOP that movie ASAP", with the assiramce: “We condemn it, that is what is in our power to do.”
Alongside the misrepresentation of the Embassy's statement, the Romney campaign was also taking the offensive against President Obama's foreign policy. Rich Williamson, a senior foreign policy advisor for Romney, told the Foreign Policy's website: "Tuesday's attacks are not isolated incidents, but rather are part of an increasing and disturbing trend of anti-American incidents that illustrate the administration's failed policies/"
On Wednesday, as it emerged that the US Ambassador to Libya had been killed in the Benghazi assaults, the Romney campaign made no effort to distance itself from the divisive comments. Instead, as CNN's Political Ticker revealed in the afternoon, “In talking points currently being pushed to Republican leaders and top surrogates, the Romney campaign recommends attacking President Obama's 'foreign policy of weakness" and dismissing questions about how the campaign responded to the crisis last night'.”
The story of what happened in Libya is just beginning, but viewed through the prism of the domestic presidential campaign, Romney's haste to use the ongoing events in Libya as a political weapon appears to be a major error --- one that suggests he does not have the temperament to lead the nation through a foreign policy crisis –-- not so much because of what he said, but when and why he said it.
On Monday morning, Romney's pollster Neil Newhouse released a memo explaining why their campaign was not worried about the surge in support for President Obama after the two party conventions. His main point was that, by continually highlighting the faltering economy to the tune of "Are you better of than four years ago?", Mitt Romney would overcome the post-convention “sugar-high” bounce in polling numbers for the Democrats.
By ignoring his own pollster's advice in favour of going after President Obama on foreign policy --- and worse, doing it incompetently --- Mitt Romney may have doomed his chances of making this election a referendum on the incumbency’s handling of the economy.