My first reaction to Romney's handling of events in Egypt and Libya was to roll my eyes and ask myself, for the nth time, how somebody so lacking in political talent ever thought of making his career in politics. To be clear, Romney's mistake wasn't that he was opportunistic. Every successful politician is an opportunist. It was that he was crassly and nakedly opportunistic. Tactically speaking, he should have milked the situation more subtly, which would have required a little dignity and restraint, and at least the appearance of gathering the facts before rushing to voice an opinion.
My second reaction is that the anti-Romney backlash is a lot louder and more joyful than is justified. He fumbled, yes. He failed to take advantage of an event that could have improved his prospects. But aren't his critics getting a bit carried away? For instance, I was struck by one of the observations in Molly Ball's piece:
"I think it's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney said at a news conference in Jacksonville, some 12 hours after his initial statement. (Here's a useful chronology of the various events and statements.) "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."
As Romney himself noted moments later, this is a presidential campaign, and everything is fair game, especially when events provide the candidates with opportunities to air their honest differences in ways that can be illuminating to the electorate. But his comments struck a sour note in light of the fact that the Egyptian embassy's statement condemning those who would attempt "to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" had long since been disavowed by the administration.
The disavowal makes Romney looks worse? I agree that in his press conference Romney should have acknowledged it -- failing to do that was another fumble. But the more important fact, surely, is that the administration did actually disavow the statement. In other words, Romney's criticism had some merit! And by the way, what a very odd statement it was.
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.
So a U.S. embassy agrees with foreign protesters in firmly rejecting the actions of Americans exercising (sorry, abusing) the right of free speech. Even when you understand the chronology, even when you understand that the film-makers are bigots, that seems a little out of the ordinary, and I can see why not everybody in the State Department was pleased.
But back to Romney. Several commentators have drawn a parallel with John McCain and his ill-judged intervention on the financial crisis in 2008 -- a turning-point for his electoral prospects. This is a little awry, I think. McCain's idea of suspending the campaigns wasn't the disaster: The disaster was his failure to say anything intelligent about the economic crisis once he'd made that dramatic demand. It was a case of sound and fury signifying nothing. He looked a fool.
With the campaigns suddenly forced to address foreign policy -- as they now assuredly will be -- Romney may fold in exactly the same way. Judging by his performance to date, I'd say that's very likely. Remember, putting Ryan on the ticket was a gamble that foreign policy wouldn't count, a bet Romney's just lost. But here's another thing we know: The administration's posture of calm, cool confidence on foreign policy is going to need, let's say, tweaking. The power of leading from behind, quietly delivering such excellent results in Egypt and Libya, is no longer an achievement in the bank.
If he had a semi-capable opponent, these events would have been seriously bad news for the president. He doesn't, I grant you. Nonetheless, it's too soon to know who'll sustain the greater damage.
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