WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney on Wednesday strongly criticized President Obama’s response to attacks on Americans in the Middle East, prompting both Republicans and Democrats to warn Romney against seeking political points over a crisis involving the death of US citizens abroad.
Romney, in a hastily arranged press conference in Jacksonville, Fla., said the Obama administration had made a “severe miscalculation” in its approach to the attacks in Libya and Egypt, and was sending “mixed signals” to the world by issuing a statement that he called “akin to an apology.”
Romney alleged that Obama was sympathizing with the attackers because of a statement that the US Embassy in Cairo issued condemning an online video offensive to Muslims as an example of religious intolerance. Romney said Wednesday the statement was issued after the attack in Cairo, as a response to it. But it was actually issued before the attack, specifically in response to growing anger in Egypt over the offensive video.
The day was one of the most dramatic in the presidential race, illustrating how rapidly the conversation could shift, and reflecting first reactions to a quickly evolving international crisis.
Obama did not mention his Republican rival in a Wednesday morning Rose Garden appearance condemning the attacks that killed four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya. But the president fired back at Romney on Wednesday afternoon in a prearranged television interview.
“There’s a broader lesson to be learned here: Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” Obama told CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
“And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that — 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.”
The tenor of Romney’s critique — coming just hours after the deaths of four Americans on foreign soil — set off a vigorous debate over whether it was appropriately assertive, or cast Romney as out of his depth on foreign policy.
Critics said that in a moment that called for statesmanlike sobriety before all the facts are known, Romney went for partisan sniping and disregarded a long history of caution in the midst of unfolding foreign violence. But Romney stuck by his criticism throughout Wednesday, and expanded on a statement his campaign initially sent out late Tuesday night.
“I don’t feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors, say, in the past few hours, perhaps since last night,” Peggy Noonan, a conservative commentator and former speechwriter for President Reagan, said on Fox News. “Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go.”
But most Republicans were more tempered than Romney. House Speaker John A. Boehner did not criticize Obama, and Senator John McCain was complimentary of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“It’s sad for the country that political ambition and expediency trumps decency and common sense,” Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said in an interview with the Globe. “The interests of our country did not beg for a political fight with the loss of an ambassador and others in its first hours without even knowing the story. I find it very, very unfortunate.”
Romney’s press conference was sandwiched between one held by Clinton, who struck a somber tone reflecting on the life of a US ambassador, and Obama, who condemned the attacks.
“Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” Obama said. “But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.”
Romney’s morning press conference was quickly staged in Jacksonville, where he was planning to hold a rally with supporters.
Romney aides said they had been monitoring the events in the Middle East all day on Tuesday and by evening in the United States the situation was becoming clearer. Egyptian Islamists had scaled the US Embassy wall in Cairo, torn down the American flag, and burned it — all in a protest of an American-made film critical of Prophet Mohammad.
In a separate episode in Libya — seemingly unrelated to the events in Egypt, and the protests over the video — initial reports said Tuesday night that at least one American had been killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
A variety of Romney advisers decided that Romney needed to respond, and drafted a statement. Romney signed off on it.
Romney conflated the Egypt and Libya attacks in his two-sentence statement that said he was “outraged” by the attacks and blamed Obama for not responding more forcefully.
“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 said in a statement sent out at 10:09 p.m.
The embassy’s statement, meant to head off the protests over the video, said the United States “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” It continued: “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy.”
Obama officials on Tuesday night distanced themselves from the statement, saying it was not authorized by officials in Washington. That decision was where Romney focused much of his criticism in his press conference Wednesday.
“It’s their administration. Their administration spoke,” Romney said. “The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also for the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department.”
Romney went on to use the handling of the situation to try to draw a contrast with his own foreign policy views.
By Wednesday morning, Romney’s campaign did not feel like events had altered enough to change that response. Three other deaths in Libya were confirmed, and campaign aides learned that one of those who died was the US ambassador. But one top Romney adviser said their core message remained the same, and they felt no need to temper the remarks in the aftermath of the deaths.
“It’s tried and true for candidates who are challenging the president to comment on the president’s foreign policy even if there have been fatalities,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In 2004, how many comments did Kerry have criticizing President Bush when troops died in Iraq?”
And in response to criticism of Romney for being unaware that the embassy statement he faulted was issued before the Cairo attack, Romney aides pointed out that embassy staff did send out a tweet standing by the statement after the protests had begun. The staff later erased the message.
The clash highlights one of the core tenets of Romney’s foreign policy: that Obama has not been forceful enough and has led what Romney has called “Obama’s American Apology Tour.”
Independent fact-checking of the notion of an Obama “apology tour” has found it to be false.
Romney’s response to the unfolding situation in Egypt and Libya comes two weeks after he was criticized for becoming the first Republican presidential nominee since 1952 to not mention war in his acceptance speech. He has also struggled to distinguish himself on foreign policy against a president who has been reminding voters that he oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Some commentators and elected officials stood by Romney.
“He spoke in the tradition of conservative internationalism,” wrote Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.