Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ian M. MacIsaac: A National tragedy made partisan

  A national tragedy at the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya became a partisan spectacle Wednesday. Lacking a clear foreign policy difference with President Obama, Mitt Romney decided that exploiting the deaths of State Department officials was a safer bet than being seen standing with the president on anything.

  Before all the dead in Benghazi had even been accounted for, as the consulate there literally continued to burn and protestors continued to climb the gates of the embassy in Cairo, Egypt, the Romney campaign was already sending out press releases calling President Obama "disgraceful" and criticizing the president for apologizing for America and leading from behind.

  The basis for such an unpatriotic and oddly-timed swipe at President Obama was a supposed statement from the White House that Governor Romney said "sympathiz[ed] with those who had breached our embassy... instead of condemning their actions."

  The reporters in the room during Romney's extraordinary press conference the next morning were clearly stunned by the timing of his campaign's political attack on the president.

  "Governor Romney," one reporter asked, "do you think... [it] was appropriate to be weighing in on this as this crisis is unfolding in real time?"

  He did think it was appropriate, as a matter of fact. He stood firm on his position (quite rare for Mitt Romney in the first place.)

  "When our embassy has been breached by protesters, our first response should not be to say, yes, we stand by our comments that suggest... an apology for America's values."

  Meanwhile, the president read his actual statement in a press conference with the Secretary of State in the Rose Garden. Here, where actual decisions had to be made, there were no smiles.

  "The United States condemns, in the strongest terms, this outrageous and shocking attack," President Obama said. We will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people... There is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence."

  Quite an apology, right? (And if you don't take the president at his word when he says that he will bring these people to justice, just ask Osama bin Laden or Anwar al-Awlaki.)

  And where Mitt Romney tried to divide Americans, President Obama united not just American citizens, but helped to heal the bond between America's citizens and those of Libya as well, as a true statement would.

  "This attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya. Libyan security personnel fought back against the attackers alongside the Americans... they carried Ambassador Stevens's body to the hospital."

  The president mentioned the Libyan counter-protests as well, the encouraging image of thousands Libyan citizens in the street waving American and Libyan flags, holding signs in English. One of the most popular read, slightly corrected: "Sorry people of America, this not the behavior of Islam and our prophet." Others denounced al-Qaeda's influence and tactics.


  It seems clear now that Governor Romney's universal opposition to everything said, done, or supported by President Obama has turned into an uncontrollable verbal tic.

  A man as shrewd as Mitt Romney must have known that an equally shrewd candidate always makes a point of standing with the president when a tragedy strikes the nation, domestically or internationally, during a campaign season. There is no other politically wise path for a challenger to take.

  It is not difficult to play the symbolic role of leader in the wake of a national tragedy. Sympathy for victims and anger toward assailants is not difficult for most reasonable people, let alone a seasoned politician. Even George W. Bush could do it; after 9/11, his approval rating soared to over 90 percent, the highest for a sitting president since Franklin Roosevelt.

  But Romney, unlike so many other presidential candidates, simply could not help himself. He showed plenty of anger, but not the assailants of these attacks on American diplomatic posts. It was toward the White House, for a statement that it turns out the White House never actually made.

  Romney was actually referring to a press release sent out hours before the attacks by the United States Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, criticizing and denouncing The Innocence of Muslims, the Muhammad-parodying film that was the supposed catalyst for the protests that a few hours later arrived at the doors of the very same Embassy.

  It was simply a sad irony that American diplomatic outposts in both Libya and Egypt were attacked for supposedly supporting a film they had forcefully decried as intolerant of Islam on the very same day.

  Governor Romney took advantage of the confusion over the timing and source of the statement to create an artificial foreign policy gap between himself and the president, in addition to taking advantage of a quadruple-murder of American diplomatic personnel.

  It is hard to imagine how much lower a politician can go, especially one who proclaims to have spent decades as a leader of his church and his community.


  Very few reporters and journalists dared to go that far in their criticism of Romney following his statement. Nonetheless, very few of them anywhere but the Tea Party voiced anything but disdain for his words.

  Even some of Romney's more middle-of-the-road advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, criticized his over-the-top reaction to the Libyan tragedy.

  The Washington Post editorial board called Governor Romney's press releases and news conference statements a "discredit to his campaign."

  The Associated Press wrote that Romney "Misstates Facts On Attacks... Mitt Romney seriously mischaracterized" events in Benghazi and Cairo in a statement "accusing President Obama of "disgraceful" handling of violence" in those two cities.

  David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, said on Twitter that Romney "launched a political attack even before facts of embassy violence were known." Chuck Todd of NBC News called his statement "irresponsible."

  Even Bill O'Reilly admitted that, as it came to the Embassy's statement being an apology for America, "I'm not sure the Governor is correct on that... The embassy was trying to head off the violence. Being conciliatory in that kind of a situation seems logical."

  The big question now is where the Romney campaign goes from here. They have truly painted their candidate into a corner on foreign policy, an issue on which President Obama has already held consistent double-digit leads over Governor Romney throughout the campaign (for example, the New York Times/CBS News poll released this Saturday has the president leading Governor Romney 49-39 as of September 12).

  Romney's lack of differences with the president on Iraq and Afghanistan--Romney would not increase American presence in Iraq, nor would he lengthen the existing 2014 timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan--has forced him to search for alternative, lesser foreign policy issues on which to draw contrast with the incumbent.

  Romney quickly tripped this week, however, when faced with the first actual American foreign policy crisis of the 2012 campaign season. He is trying to change the subject with a podcast released this weekend decrying President Obama's complicity in the so-called "fiscal cliff."

  But the death of an American ambassador, and a candidate's reaction to it, are not things that simply go away. Romney made a series of major mistakes this week that may end up defining him, to some degree, on foreign policy, although his mistakes this week may have been more those of procedure than those of malevolence.


  The truth is that Mitt Romney is a painstaking man, and can effectively accomplish little when he is thinking and acting in a hurry. When given all the time he needs, he can be the smartest guy in the room, but he is no improviser.

  This was a double-edged sword commonly seen in the endless Republican debates over the last eighteen months. Romney delivered previously-prepared barbs with all the skill needed to dispatch foes like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

  Confronted with a surprise question about his taxes or his health care plan as Governor of Massachusetts, however, he was often staggeringly ineffective and awkward. Romney is at his worst when surprised.

  In other words, Romney's mistakes this week over the Libyan tragedy were no mistake: they were simply Romney Standard Operating Procedure when it comes to making snap decisions.

  Simply put, they tend to be his worst decisions. He is ineffective at that particular type of decision-making, the way some kids are great at geometry but flunk algebra the next year.

  Most of Romney's most consequential professional decisions were made in a venture capital boardroom, a place not known for major crises where time is of the essence down to minutes and seconds the way it is in the Oval Office.

  He has been repeatedly described by friends, as detailed in The Real Romney by Scott Helman and Michael Kranish, as taking long stretches of time--months, even--to make crucial decisions in both his professional and personal life, including the decisions to run for president in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

  He never learned how to be the kind of executive a president needs to be. That unfortunate fact is on clear display as he stumbles his way through the first death of an American ambassador in the field in more than thirty years.

  It was a spectacle enough without him making it worse, but he did anyway. It is certainly not going to win him any undecided voters. It may, however, have won some for the president.

  About the author: Ian M. MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University, and former co-editor of the AUMnibus, the official Auburn Montgomery student newspaper.

Copyright © Capital City Free Press

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