Friday, September 14, 2012

Election Week in Review....Days of Mideast Rage (September 14, 2012)

Foreign affairs are always unpredictable, hewing to no campaign timetable.  It’s not a topic that Mitt Romney relishes in his “it’s the economy, stupid” (or, perhaps now, “it’s the deficit, stupid”) campaign thrust.  But a foreign crisis is also not necessarily great news for Barack Obama, because it represents a chance for him to blow what is clearly seen as a strength over Romney.

The week started off with a Bibi Netanyahu controversy, surely something Obama wants to avoid.  Bibi accused the President of not setting “red lines” that would prompt a U.S. strike on Iran, and then took offense at Obama’s alleged refusal to meet with him.  This latter charge ultimately proved to be untrue (they ended up speaking on the phone for over an hour), but anything that feeds the Romney storyline that Obama is soft on Israel is trouble for Obama.

But that proved to be just the warm-up act for the week.  As you all know, an independent “filmmaker” produced and aired a despicable low-budget movie that ridiculed the Muslim faith and included mocking images of the Prophet Mohammed.  Somehow, this movie has unleashed a backlash of protest against the United States across many Middle Eastern countries. Tragically, an organized commando assault on the American embassy in Libya – on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 -- resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

In the time since it has become clear that this tragedy is not necessarily the culmination of the rage, but rather the opening salvo.  The number of countries with protests – and violence -- has increased, and America’s ability to put together an effective response appears limited. 

This blog is concerned with the political implications of campaign events and exogenous ones.  Mitt Romney has not helped himself with this one.  Romney released a scathing critique of the Obama Administration’s response, castigating a tweet from the US Embassy for being “disgraceful” in not condemning the attacks and appearing (to Mitt) to express some level of sympathy for the attackers.  This is consistent with his theme that the Obama administration often apologizes for American values.  Trouble was, the tweet was not in fact cleared by the Obama administration….but more importantly, it came from the Embassy BEFORE the attacks!

FYI, here was the tweet itself:

"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."

Faced with this embarrassment, Romney chose not to back down, but to press on with his criticisms.  Obama, for his part, issued a scathing statement condemning the assault once it and the Ambassador’s death were confirmed.  After at first ignoring Romney, ultimately he critiqued him in measured tone, accusing him of a “tendency to shoot first and aim later.”

Democrats -- and most Republicans -- were amazed that Romney chose to use “rapid response” techniques to politicize the administration’s handling of a foreign crisis that had barely begun.  In some sense, criticizing the tweet mistakenly was the least of it.  That Romney would interject himself at all into such a cauldron at its outset was rightly viewed as premature and amateurish by many, including most of his supporters.  (Peggy Noonan and Mark Salter were two prominent Republican Mitt-bashers on this one.)

Unfortunately for Romney, this awkwardness has shown itself time and again in his limited efforts to project foreign policy chops, from insulting the U.K.’s handling of the Olympics to making controversial statements in Israel, to not mentioning Afghanistan or our troops there in his convention speech, and now to this.

Comparisons galore have ensued…is this Mitt Romney emulating John McCain’s desperate campaign machinations of 2008, when he too found himself trailing by an unshakeable and growing margin?  But some Republicans sought to recast Obama as a latter day Jimmy Carter.

And that’s because Obama is not out of the woods on this by any means.  He will indeed be tested for the effectiveness of American response, and ongoing days or weeks of rage and violence will not help him at all. Romney would do well to offer cool support of the President while the crisis continues, critique him on the economy as per usual, and pounce if Obama’s response proves tepid.  Stay tuned.

Comments welcome!

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