Blustering and blundering, Libya edition

    Remember last week when Barack Obama warned in his convention speech that his opponent’s foreign policy would return us to “an era of blustering and blundering”? Well, sure enough, Mitt Romney has now proven the president correct.

    But first, a personal note: I truly wish that Romney could manage to go a day or two without embarrassing himself, if only so that folks like me could get a breather. I had something all lined up for this morning on an entirely different topic, with no mention of Romney anywhere. But if this guy is going to keep screwing up and sliding downward – the Fox News poll, which had him leading by a point two weeks ago, now shows him trailing Obama by five points among likely voters – then, obviously, attention must be paid.

    And his blustering and blundering in the current Middle East crisis certainly warrants that attention, since it’s further proof that Romney (in the words of one Republican strategist) is “not ready for prime time,” that a long career spent mostly in the service of maximizing private profit is no training for the job of commander-in-chief.

    His behavior has been reprehensible – but don’t take my word for it. More importantly, he is being savaged by prominent Republicans who understand something that seems to elude the foreign policy novice: In a crisis like this, with American lives lost and in jeopardy, you mute your tone and leave partisan politics at the water’s edge. Like Ronald Reagan did in 1980, when President Carter’s rescue helicopter crashed in the desert on the way to Iran.

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    I won’t recount in detail the latest Romney misadventure; you probably know it already. Suffice it to say that, in the midst of spiraling violence at our Egyptian and Libyan embassies on Tuesday night Eastern time, Romney rushed out a statement that politicized the tragedy and falsely pinned the blame on President Obama. He said: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

    It takes a special talent to weave multiple lies into a single sentence, all while rushing to judgment in the midst of a fast-moving tragedy, but Romney pulled it off.

    The “first response” actually came from the embattled U.S. embassy in Cairo (not from the Obama administration) at 6:18 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday, and that statement in no way sympathized with the attackers. We know this, for one simple reason: The statement was released roughly five hours before the embassy was even attacked.

    An angry crowd had gathered outside the embassy to protest an extremist anti-Muslim movie, reportedly American-made, that has been circulating online – and the U.S. embassy’s statement was basically a condemnation of anti-Muslim prejudice. (Which echoes what the Bush administration’s State Department said in 2006, when Danish anti-Muslim cartoons sparked European protests; as the Bush spokesman said at the time, “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.”

    The Obama administration issued its first statement on Tuesday night, as the violence was building to a crescendo. It came from Hillary Clinton: “I condemn in the strongest possible terms the attack on our mission in (Libya) today.”

    In other words, Romney lied again. Nowhere in Clinton’s statement, or in Obama’s statement yesterday morning, was there even a scintilla of a suggestion that the president wishes to “sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” Romney just made it up – and then, in his own press conference yesterday morning, he doubled down on his own deceptions.

    You have to wonder how Romney can even believe that this behavior will boost him politically. The only people who still think Obama is a terrorist sympathizer are the usual haters on the Republican right. We’re in general election mode now. How many centrist swing voters will be charmed by Romney’s post-truth performance in the midst of an international crisis?

    So now let’s hear from a sampling of aghast Republicans. Over to you, folks.

    Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan: “In times of great drama and heightened crisis, in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think that discretion is the way to go. I don’t believe Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors. Sometimes when things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go.”

    Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum (he coined the term “axis of evil”): “The Romney campaign’s attempt to score political points on the killing of American diplomats was a dismal business in every respect….It was graceless and stupid as a matter of politics.”

    Veteran Republican strategist Ed Rogers, whose service dates back to Reagan: “At this solemn, serious moment, Mitt Romney had to be crisp and precise. He was neither….The president had to display stature and resolve. He did both….The comparison between the two men is inevitable, and the president looked like a president is supposed to. I guess Romney looked like the candidate he is, and nothing else.”

    Foreign policy expert Anthony Cordesman, a John McCain campaign adviser in 2008: “(Romney’s behavior) is the worst possible reaction to what happened. We need to be extremely cautious about rushing out and politicizing it….It may be the duty of an opposition candidate to criticize and challenge, but not at the cost of America’s strategic interests, lasting relations with key nations in the Middle East, or somehow making this an issue that puts Christian against Muslim or the West against the Arab world.”

    Former New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu, whose father is a Romney surrogate: “They probably should have waited. You look at the way things unfolded, you look at the timing of it, they probably should have waited.”

    Daniel Larison, at The American Conservative magazine: “When senior Republican foreign policy professionals start referring to this as (Romney’s) ‘Lehman moment,’ likening it to McCain’s mid-September ’08 meltdown in response to the financial crisis, we can see that Romney’s latest attempt to seize on an international event has done significant and possibly irreparable damage to his campaign. Most Americans may not sympathize with Romney’s more aggressive foreign policy, but they might have been willing to believe him to be competent and have good judgment. This blunder undermines his claims to both of these.”

    Mark Salter, former McCain speechwriter and chief of staff: “(Romney’s attack on Obama) is as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing….This is hardly the moment to demonstrate greater resolve to take the fight to the president. Four good Americans, brave and true, have just died in service to their country….Nothing said or done by the president or anyone in the U.S. government is responsible for the violence that led to their deaths….There are legitimate criticisms to make about the administration’s foreign policy. But, please, let’s refrain from making this terrible loss an occasion for more unfair and hyperbolic soundbites…”

    I can’t improve on that.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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