Republicans saw yesterday's protests in the Middle East as an opportunity to hit the president over foreign policy, but the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens has fundamentally altered that debate. The political row began after the U.S. embassy in Cairo released a statement that appeared to condemning those who made the hateful video about Mohammed:
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
Observers on the right, like National Review's Nina Shea, began to criticize the statement for targeting the filmmakers instead of the protesters who were threatening the embassy. Though the presidential campaigns had vowed to make September 11 a politics-free day, the Romney campaign felt it couldn't wait to release a statement that criticized the President for that reaction.
According to McKay Coppins at BuzzFeed, the statement was emailed to reporters at 10:00 p.m. with an embargo for midnight (or, the minute after September 11 was over.) However, they rescinded the embargo just 15 minutes later releasing this statement to the public.
"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.”
There were two problems with the Romney statement. One is that the original embassy statement was written before the Cairo embassy was overrun and the violence had started. The second was that it wasn't an official statement by the president. It was reportedly released by officials in Cairo without approval from the White House or even the State Department in Washington, who later disavowed it to Politico. The president's campaign said they were "shocked" by his reaction.
Because of the late hour, the timing of all these back and forth statements (and the continued piling on by other Republican leaders) may come back to haunt the Romney campaign. Here's an even more pointed attack from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt.Sad and pathetic.— Reince Priebus (@Reince) September 12, 2012
Most of this happened while Americans were asleep. (Note that Priebus sent his tweet at 12:01 a.m. on September 12.) Now those same Americans are waking up to news that seriously changes the tenor of the incident. This is no longer about hooligans tearing down an American flag. This is about the murder of an official representative of the United States government on foreign soil and a breach of sovereignty. What might have been a minor domestic political squabble is now an international incident and both sides must tread very carefully.
Shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday, the White House released a statement from Obama condemning the attacks, which reads in part:
I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.
I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.
Of course, by that time, GOP figures like Newt Gingrich were already on cable news channels continuing to lash out at the President. Even as the CNN anchors pointed out the timing of the Cairo statement, Gingrich accused Obama of "twisting the facts" and attacking the right of free speech. Then he drew another uncomfortable line in the sand, by speaking on behalf of Romney:
"If Governor Romney were president he would be enraged at the Egyptians for tolerating the attack on the embassy. He would be offended at the Libyans for allowing the attack on the embassy."
Gingrich added that his own reaction "would be pretty militant" and kept it up on Twitter. Will Romney's next reaction be equally militant?
The death of American official overseas creates a very delicate situation for the president. How the administration responds next will have to be carefully calibrated to address the situation both and home and abroad and could have repercussions on our diplomacy for years to come. That makes Romney's next move equally important. It's never to easy to criticize a president in the middle of an international incident, and the statements made last night already have him starting on shaky ground. Will he back up Gingrich and Priebus? Will other Republican leaders? (So far it seems they are backing off.) Will they have to walk back their comments in light of the new facts? Or will Romney and his campaign continue to pound the president in order to make his own case for foreign policy?