Bloomberg News

Romney’s Libya Response Fuels Foreign Policy Doubts

September 13, 2012

Romney Libya Response Fuels Foreign Policy Preparedness Doubts

Yemeni protesters storm the U.S. embassy during a protest against a film deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed on Spet. 13, 2012 in Sana'a. Photographer: Yahya Arhab/EPA

It was supposed to be a clear-eyed rebuke of the sitting president’s approach to a foreign-policy crisis.

Instead, Mitt Romney’s criticism of President Barack Obama’s handling of the attacks in Egypt and Libya that led to the death of a U.S. ambassador yesterday fueled questions -- even among his allies -- about the Republican presidential nominee’s inexperience on national security as his campaign is pushing to gain traction by refocusing on jobs and the economy.

Obama, in a television interview, said Romney “seems to have a tendency to shoot first, aim later,” and called the episode a “broader lesson” about being commander in chief.

“As president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that -- that, you know, it’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts, and that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them,” Obama told CBS News in an interview to be broadcast in its entirety Sept. 16 on the program “60 Minutes.”

Some prominent Republicans shared that view. Romney “will find out that first reports from the battlefield are always incorrect,” Richard Armitage, the former deputy Secretary of State under Republican President George W. Bush, said in an interview yesterday. “This should be his mantra, so he can speak in a deliberate manner, and not have to repent at his leisure later.”

Prior Mistakes

The flap over Romney’s reaction follows criticism of him from the Obama campaign for making no mention of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in his nominating acceptance speech last month at the Republican National Convention. The former Massachusetts governor was also faulted for a gaffe-plagued overseas trip in July, during which he insulted the London leaders of the 2012 Summer Olympics by questioning their security arrangements.

In another instance where Romney drew attention for sharp critiques of Obama as a foreign predicament was unfolding, he was criticized earlier this year for complaining about the White House’s handling of the case of Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese dissident, even as the administration was in the midst of negotiating Chen’s safe release.

The latest political skirmish focused on a series of remarks by Romney and his campaign on the U.S. handling and reaction to the protests in Libya and Egypt that culminated in violence.

‘Akin to Apology’

In a Jacksonville, Florida, news conference yesterday, Romney said the Obama administration set a “terrible course” when the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a statement the Republican nominee called “akin to apology” for Egyptian protesters before the death of U.S. envoy to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

Romney’s comments came just hours after his campaign issued a separate statement late on Sept. 11 -- near the close of the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil -- that the Obama administration’s “first response” had been to “sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” calling it “disgraceful.”

Romney’s remarks centered on a statement calling for religious tolerance issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo several hours before attacks erupted there and in Libya in an attempt to ease tensions over an anti-Muslim film.

As protesters gathered outside, the embassy initially posted a message Sept. 11 on the social networking site Twitter saying, “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy.” About an hour later, it released a statement saying it condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

‘Terrible Course’

“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” Romney told reporters at the Jacksonville news conference yesterday where supporters, who’d gathered for a previously scheduled event, looked on through windows. “Instead, when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation.”

Romney, who said he mourned the loss of American life and was praying for the victims’ families, said the embassy had stood by its statement “after their grounds had been breached.”

The embassy in Cairo posted another message on Twitter after the attacks that said its earlier condemnation of religious intolerance “still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the embassy.”

Defending Romney

Romney’s allies came to his defense, saying he had rightly pointed out shortcomings in Obama’s foreign policy, and their ramifications for U.S. security.

Representative Peter King, the New York House Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, questioned the timing of Romney’s statement, not its substance.

“I probably would have waited 12 or 24 hours” because “a quick statement,” if “something tragic does happen,” may “be perceived as being political,” King said. Still, King said he agreed with “the overall point he was making,” adding that “we have to be more aggressive in the Middle East.”

The embassy’s statement “was reflective of the weak, meandering Middle East policy of the Obama administration,” King said. “We should not be in any way using a statement to try to buy off radicals.”

Poll Results

Public opinion polls consistently have shown voters giving Obama higher marks on dealing with foreign policy than Romney. In a CNN/ORC International survey released earlier this week, Obama was favored on the issue over Romney, 54 percent to 42 percent.

Romney’s campaign initially appeared to make an effort to avoid reproaching Obama on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., circulating its initial critical statement just after 11 p.m. that night and embargoing it until 12:01 a.m. Eastern time on Sept. 12. An aide lifted the embargo minutes later.

Romney’s remarks at his news conference in Florida followed the confirmation that Stevens and the three others were killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi amid protests in the North African country and neighboring Egypt over a film about the Prophet Muhammad viewed as blasphemous by Muslims.

“The embassy is the administration,” Romney said. “The statement that came from the administration was a statement that was akin to apology.”

Talking Points

In talking points his campaign distributed yesterday to Republican surrogates, Romney’s senior aides instructed allies to dismiss the question, “Did Governor Romney ‘jump the gun’ last night in releasing his statement?”

“No,” the talking points said, offering a line similar to one Romney used at his news conference. “It is never too soon to stand up for American values and interests.”

Still, some Republicans said privately that Romney’s response had deepened questions about his understanding of and ability to handle foreign policy questions.

One national security veteran of a former Republican administration, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid publicly criticizing the party’s standard bearer, said Romney had reacted precipitously without knowing all the facts in an effort to score political points -- and missed badly.

Mark Salter, a confidant and former aide to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, wrote that the response of Romney and others who had condemned Obama in the wake of the killings was “as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing.”

“I understand the Romney campaign is under pressure from some Republicans to toughen its attacks on the president,” Salter wrote on the website RealClearPolitics, adding that he is “sympathetic to Romney’s predicament.”

“But this is hardly the issue or the moment to demonstrate a greater resolve to take the fight to the president,” Salter wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at jdavis159@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net


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