It’s been eleven years and now and the anniversary of 9/11 has become more a ritual of sadness than a call to arms, and the politics this year reflected that. No one called for war – not now – and the presidential campaigns stood down for a day, with remembrance speeches that were patriotic and not political at all. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement that this wasn’t the day to bash the other guy as an incompetent fool or a cunning devil. It was a day off from all the nasty stuff – and certainly no one was going to use what happened eleven years ago as a bludgeon to smack the other guy upside the head, blaming what happened on blundering Republicans or feckless Democrats. The country wouldn’t stand for it. You don’t play politics with a tragedy for the nation. So we all got a day off from such things. Yeah, Bill Clinton spoke in Florida, on Medicare, for Obama – but the Big Dog isn’t running for anything himself and he’s always kind of fun and no one complained. Actually no one cared.
So politics stopped for a day, which is unnatural in this country, and absurd because nothing else in the world even slowed down, much less stopped. We had an international crisis on our hands. In Cairo protestors stormed our embassy and trashed the place, and the same thing happened in Benghazi at our consulate – our embassy in Libya is in the capital, Tripoli, and nothing much happened there. But this was bad enough, and the proximate cause of the uprising against us was a crude and amateurish movie mocking Islam. There was only a trailer on the web, picked up by the radical clerics in those parts. The Los Angeles Times has an in-depth discussion of the movie itself – filmed and sort of released here in Southern California some time ago. It was screened, for free, at the seedy old Vine Theater on Hollywood Boulevard that anyone can rent for an afternoon for a few hundred bucks. Ten people showed up to watch it. It was nothing. But the producer blasted the Middle East with the trailer on YouTube, obviously intending to insult and provoke a violent reaction, proving his thesis that “Islam is a cancer.”
Yes, this was the same sort of thing Pastor Terry Jones tried a few years ago when he planned to burn a Quran to condemn Islam, which resulted in the death of fifteen people in Kabul – yes, there were riots. At the time, Mitt Romney, fully agreed with General David Petraeus and slammed Jones’ plan as something that would endanger American lives – “Burning the Quran is wrong on every level. It puts troops in danger, and it violates a founding principle of our republic.”
Needless provocation isn’t the same as free speech, and George Bush himself had criticized the decision of Danish newspapers and magazines to publish those cartoons demeaning Mohammed – publishing such things is destructive to Western relations with the Islamic world, which were at the time shaky enough. Sure they can do that – they have the right to publish those cartoons. That still doesn’t make it a wonderful idea. These things are tricky.
So here we go again. Someone intending to provoke big trouble did just that, and things got nasty, and Mitt Romney, as the September 11 political ceasefire was ending, saw an opening and pounced:
I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. 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 you have it. Obama sympathizes with these folks who kill our folks. In essence, Obama is a traitor. He likes Muslims. He hates Americans. At least that was the implication. It’s disgraceful.
And this is what actually happened:
Before the protesters attacked the compound, the U.S. mission in Cairo said in a statement: “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.”
That’s kind of what Romney himself had said way back when, and the embassy statement was not even a response to the attacks – it was issued several hours before the attacks even occurred. Duh! The Washington Post reports the actual first response to the attacks from the Obama administration itself:
“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement. “As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.” …
She added that although the United States “deplores” any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, “there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
Romney was making things up. NBC’s First Read saw it this way:
Yesterday we noted that Mitt Romney, down in the polls after the convention, was throwing the kitchen sink at President Obama. Little did we know the kitchen sink would include – on the anniversary of 9/11 – one of the most over-the-top and (it turns out) incorrect attacks of the general-election campaign….This morning, we learned that the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and others died in one of the attacks.
Bottom line: This was news-cycle campaigning by the Romney campaign gone awry. Why didn’t the Romney campaign wait until it had all the facts? On his overseas trip in the summer, Romney was so careful not to criticize Obama while on foreign soil. But how much time do you give an administration to work through a diplomatic and international crisis before trying to score immediate political points? You’d expect the Sarah Palins of the world to quickly pounce on something like this, and she predictably did. But a presidential nominee running for the highest office in the land? After the facts have come out, last night’s Romney statement only feeds the narrative that his campaign is desperate.
Kevin Drum offers this:
The Romney campaign was so eager to issue its statement of outrage that they initially scheduled it for release at 12:01 am. Why? So that no one could claim they were trying to score political points on 9/11. But eventually their giddiness got the better of them and they let it go late Tuesday night.
These guys just don’t know when to quit. I don’t think there’s anything left that they won’t say or do if they think it might give them a 1% pop in the polls. They really don’t respect anything at all anymore.
Alex Pareene sees it this way:
Romney’s accusation was based on a statement released not by the White House but by the embassy in Cairo, and that statement was designed to quell the protests before they became dangerous, which they did, shortly thereafter. This morning, when the scope of the tragedy was clearer, Romney personally affirmed that he believes the administration “sympathized” with the mob in Egypt. “I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” he said, in order to evoke his oft-repeated lie about the president “apologizing” for America.
Romney’s response has been widely denounced as beyond the pale, for combining dishonesty, breathtaking insensitivity (the statement was released on Sept. 11 while the violence was still underway), and obscenely cynical political opportunism in one neat package. The outrage has come not just from Democrats and the left, but also from members of the objective press and a few (many anonymous) representatives of the right and the Republican Party.
Yes, there’s Mark Halperin – “Unless the Romney campaign has gamed this crisis out in some manner completely invisible to the Gang of 500, his doubling down on criticism of the President for the statement coming out of Cairo is likely to be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign.”
And there’s Chris Cillizza – “Romney’s approach hands the Obama team an opening to cast the challenger as not ready for the job, someone who jumps to conclusions before all the facts are known. And, at least at the moment, that appears to be the stronger (political) argument.”
At BuzzFeed Ben Smith surveys some Republicans:
“They were just trying to score a cheap news cycle hit based on the embassy statement and now it’s just completely blown up,” said a very senior Republican foreign policy hand, who called the statement an “utter disaster” and a “Lehman moment” – a parallel to the moment when John McCain, amid the 2008 financial crisis, failed to come across as a steady leader. …
“It’s bad,” said a former aide to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Just on a factual level that the [embassy] statement was not a response [to the attacks] but preceding – or one could make the case precipitating. And just calling it a ‘disgrace’ doesn’t really cut it. Not ready for prime time.”
A third Republican, a former Bush State Department official, told BuzzFeed, “It wasn’t presidential of Romney to go political immediately – a tragedy of this magnitude should be something the nation collectively grieves before politics enters the conversation.”
Andrew Sprung sees it as just knee-jerk stuff:
You do not have to be expert in anything to assess the merit of Romney’s reaction – or his fitness for the presidency. You need only be a social mammal of the human species.
In response to everything Obama does or says – or, for that matter, anything his primary opponents did or said – Romney’s reaction is so knee-jerk condemnatory, so extravagantly worded, so predictably self-serving that the instinctive response for most listeners or readers not themselves besotted with hatred for the target has got to be, “this guy is faking it.” His condemnations have the rote extravagance of a Soviet communique.
This was not Mitt’s finest moment, and James Fallows argues here that Romney has failed a key test:
When faced with a 3 a.m. test, he reacted immediately, rather than having the instinct to wait. And after he waited, he mistook this as a moment for partisanship rather than for at least the appearance of statesmanlike national unity. The irony, of course, is that resisting the partisan impulse today would have been the greatest possible boost to his horse-race prospects two months from now.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein understands how this could happen:
Romney’s comments were, to be sure, unusually noxious and indecent. But this is also what happens when campaigns get desperate. Like a gambler who’s already lost too much, they begin taking risks in the hope of making it all back. And then, more often than not, they pay the price.
Bush’s former speechwriter, David Frum, in this item blames “the dangerously distorting effect of disrespect for one’s political opponents” for this mess:
Inside Team Romney, and among Romney’s donors and core supporters, it may be taken absolutely for granted that Barack Obama is a weak-willed appeaser of radical Islam, a cringing apologizer for America who does not love the country the way “we” do. So why not say it loud, especially when you think you’ve just caught his administration doing it again? And then you discover the mistake only after the statement has departed the outbox…
Kevin Drum sums it up:
What we have here is a meme that was born in the fever swamps of the conservative blogosphere – Obama apologized to attackers! – and which the Romney campaign could barely restrain itself from mimicking even while the entire episode was still unfolding. They didn’t care whether it was true (it wasn’t), they didn’t care if it was appropriate, and they didn’t care what effect on actual events it might have. They just jumped at a chance to pretend that Obama had disgraced the country yet again. In Romneyland, everything Obama does is automatically a disgrace, no matter how you have to mangle his words to get there.
But this time they’ve seriously misjudged things. This was not the time or place for an insta-reaction that was so plainly political, so obviously twisted, so transparently opportunistic, and so obnoxiously over the top. But they just don’t know any other way of running a campaign. This is who they are.
Hey, maybe they’re just canny, as Alex Pareene argues:
I think people predicting (or hoping) that Romney’s shameless performance over the last day will end up hurting his campaign are themselves jumping the gun. This wasn’t McCain suspending his campaign, the moment a few commentators have compared it to. That was so bizarre it caught the attention of even uninterested voters, and it was a fiasco that lasted for days – days immediately preceding a debate. Romney’s shamelessness added up to a morning’s worth of bad headlines, honestly, even if the stink lingers for a while.
Also, unlike McCain’s suspension, Romney’s craven statement and subsequent reiteration of his attack is arguably not horrible politics: A considerable portion of the electorate hates and distrusts Muslims, a considerable portion of the electorate thinks Obama secretly adheres to or is at least suspiciously “sympathetic” to Islam, and headlines and images of extremists attacking Americans abroad make for a perfect opportunity to capitalize on those feelings. A nuanced, accurate and fair criticism of the Obama administration would’ve appealed to, well, the sort of people to who nuanced, accurate and fair criticisms usually appeal: liberals.
You don’t play politics with a tragedy for the nation? Of course you do:
Romney clearly went too far, and the fact that his campaign apparently has no idea where the line is when it comes to how much they can “get away with” before the press starts calling them disgusting should still worry Republicans (there was a way to get this “Obama is weak” point across without blatantly lying and explicitly accusing Obama of sympathizing with killers!), but an attack on Americans by irate anti-American Muslims abroad is the sort of thing that will make certain voters more, shall we say, sympathetic to the candidate who is more shameless about hating Muslims. Romney understands this and is willing to capitalize on it.
And after a period of practically bipartisan disgust with Romney, the right is finally lining up behind him. A whole set of (frequently contradictory) defenses are already being mustered: that Romney was totally right, that Romney was unfortunately careless with his timing but essentially correct in his criticism, that Romney is the victim of a liberal media conspiracy, that the Democrats are actually the ones politicizing the tragedy and demanding that no one criticize the president during a crisis, etc.
And on we go:
Once the shock of Romney’s craven statement and embarrassing press conference fade, he’ll continue blaming last night’s horrific events on Obama’s “weakness” and his allies and surrogates will continue repeating the notion that Obama’s true sympathies are closer to the people who attacked our embassy than to those who lost their lives trying to defend and escape it.
They’ll just be more careful about it, although it does seem this whole thing was carefully planned out:
The resulting statement took shape while Mr. Romney and a reduced staff contingent flew from Reno, Nev., to Jacksonville, Fla., from about 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and the statement went out about an hour after he landed and signed off on it. Aides said it was drafted by committee – a team effort by one group of advisers specializing in policy, the communications team and the strategy shop. …
Mr. Romney’s criticism fed into his larger theme of painting Mr. Obama as apologizing for the United States, and his team stuck by it. “While there may be differences of opinion regarding issues of timing,” said one senior strategist, who asked not to be named, “I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”
Kevin Drum comments on this:
This was no late-night, one-person screw-up that Romney then felt he had to stand behind. It was a carefully calculated statement drafted by Romney’s entire team and then signed off on by Romney himself. Even with his whole staff beavering away on this, apparently not a single person pointed out that (a) they didn’t have their facts straight, (b) it might be appropriate to wait a little while before scoring cheap political points, and (c) accusing the president of the United States of “sympathizing” with embassy attackers was beyond the pale.
Alternatively, someone did point this stuff out and got voted down. I’m not sure which is worse.
Yeah, but the man wants to be president after all, although Daniel Larison isn’t so sure about that:
As a practical matter, this episode shows how useless Romney’s main foreign policy theme has been. According to Romney, Obama “apologizes for” America, and Romney won’t. He tried to shoehorn the embassy attacks into this frame, and it didn’t work for at least two reasons. First, Obama didn’t respond to the attacks by apologizing for anything or sympathizing with the attackers, as Romney’s original statement charged, so it was blatantly false. Romney’s position that the U.S. should never “apologize for” American values is almost beside the point. Would this have made any difference to the people assaulting the embassy in Cairo or the consulate in Benghazi? Would the attacks not have happened if Romney had been conducting his own brand of thoroughly unapologetic activist foreign policy? It seems unlikely.
Romney might have legitimately questioned the security arrangements for the consulate, for example, or he could have made the fair observation that Libya’s new government is very weak and Libya as a whole has serious security problems, but that wouldn’t have translated into the easy and satisfying point-scoring that Romney seems to prefer. It wouldn’t have fit his ready-made scheme of Obama-as-Carter, but it would have spared him of most of the ridicule he’s receiving now. Now instead of portraying Obama as Carter, he has presented himself as the bumbling McCain figure of 2012.
Jonathan Chait agrees the man is a lost cause:
The miscalculation at work here is that Romney believed his “Apology Tour” method would neatly fit the events at hand – take an event that sort of vaguely resembled an Obama apology to Muslims who don’t like us, twist it around, and call it a day. But Romney had grown accustomed to spinning fantasies cobbled together from months-old Obama speeches and nurtured into legend by extensive repetition and exaggeration in the conservative subculture. What he failed to realize from the outset was that the embassy attack was an immediate, high-profile event that he could not hope to rewrite so brazenly. Forced to confront the yawning chasm between reality and the fantasy he had wallowed in so long, Romney was exposed and, justifiably, discredited.
Michael Tomasky echoes that:
Once again, the Romney pattern holds: pander to the right, issue an irresponsible statement, before Romney and his people even know whether this violence is going to spread, and prove that they will try to use even the violent deaths of four diplomats to political advantage. This isn’t an aberration. We’ve seen enough to know that this is his character.
Greg Sargent adds this:
One wonders whether Romney – who has been widely criticized for failing to spell out his own foreign policies with any meaningful specificity, even as he attacks Obama as a weak appeaser on any number of fronts – will take this occasion to spell out clearly how he would handle the situation.
Nope. Don’t hold your breath. And Andrew Sullivan is clear enough:
The obvious responsible thing to do when American citizens and public officials are under physical threat abroad, and when the details are unknown, and events spiraling, is to stay silent. If the event happens on the day of September 11 and you are a candidate for president and have observed a political truce, all the more reason to wait to allow the facts to emerge. After all, country before party, right? American lives are at stake, yes? An easy call, no?
But that’s not what the Romney camp did. What they did was seize on a tweet issued by someone in the US Embassy before the attacks in order to indict the president for “sympathizing” with those who murdered a US ambassador after the attacks.
It comes down to this:
These people are simply unfit for the responsibility of running the United States. The knee-jerk judgments, based on ideology not reality; the inability to back down when you have said something obviously wrong; and the attempt to argue that the president of the US actually sympathized with those who murdered his own ambassador in Benghazi: these are disqualifying instincts for someone hoping to be the president of the United States.
There’s the idea that the country wouldn’t stand for anyone politicizing 9/11 – there are some things you just don’t do. Our Egyptian embassy and one of our Libyan consulates were attacked. Our ambassador and three of his senior staff are now dead. Egyptian and Libyan security fought to try to protect them. Our relations with the Islamic world are shaky, but we must deal with that world – we can’t kill them all, and we don’t really want to. We’re not that kind of monsters. We have a tragedy wrapped in an enigma, which we do need to deal with. And the man who would be president is talking about who acted disgracefully, and smirking, because he knows he’s lying about the facts. You know the famous words from the fifties – “Have you no shame, sir?”
The question answers itself.