Mitt Romney's sharply-worded attack on President Obama over a pair of deadly riots in Muslim countries last night has backfired badly among foreign policy hands of both parties, who cast it as hasty and off-key, released before the facts were clear at what has become a moment of tragedy.
Romney keyed his statement to the American Embassy in Cairo's condemnation of an anti-Muslim video that served as the trigger for the latest in a series of regional riots over obscure perceived slights to the faith. But his statement — initially embargoed to avoid release on September 11, then released yesterday evening anyway — came just before news that the American Ambassador to Libya had been killed and broke with a tradition of unity around national tragedies, and of avoiding hasty statements on foreign policy. It was the second time Romney has been burned by an early statement on a complex crisis: Romney denounced the Obama Administration's handling of a Chinese dissident's escape just as the Administration negotiated behind the scenes for his departure from the country.
"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.
He and other members of both parties cited the Romney campaign's recent dismissals of foreign policy's relevance. One adviser dismissed the subject to BuzzFeed as a "shiny object," while another told Politico that the subject was the "president's turf," drawing a rebuke from Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.
"I guess we see now that it is because they’re incompetent at talking effectively about foreign policy," said the Republican. "This is just unbelievable — when they decide to play on it they completely bungle it."
Romney has not backed off the response — "It's never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values," he said Wednesday — but his campaign faces a near consensus in Republican foreign policy circles that, whatever the sentiment, Romney faltered badly.
"It’s deeply unfortunate when the circumstance of the statement becomes the story," said Rick Perry's former foreign policy adviser, Victoria Coates, who is now an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and who suggested that Romney should simply have "gone earlier rather than save it for midnight" to avoid appearing to play politics on September 11. "It’s unfortunate that it’s playing out this way, and hopefully they can get back on message, because their point is sound," she said.
Other conservatives were less sympathetic.
"It's bad," said a former aide to Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "Just on a factual level that the statement was not a response 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."
But the third official defended the substance of Romney's words: "Romney's attack is spot-on — disgusting that the first Obama administration impulse was to apologize instead of condemning violent religious intolerance. Obama's gotten a real pass on his intervention in Libya, his failed strategy in Afghanistan, and his lack of leadership in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. By trying to cut it down the middle in his foreign policy, no one knows where or for what Obama or America stands in the world these days."
The Republicans declined to speak for attribution, for fear of being publicly disloyal to their party's nominee. Veteran Democratic foreign policy hands, operating under no such restriction, called Romney's quick move all but disqualifying.
"He did jump the gun. It revealed yet again that his foreign policy team is not ready for prime time," said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton State Department official. "It is ugly and amateurish. It also seems strangely out of character with Romney who elsewhere in the campaign seems inclined to be restrained to a fault."
Heather Hurlburt, who heads the National Security Network, a Democratic group, said the statement "shows not just poor judgment and a willingness to use tragedy for political gains, regardless of the security consequences — but also poor management. He has policy people on his team who know better. Clearly they weren't consulted."
"As someone who worked at state and with diplomats for many years, it makes me feel sick," she said.
"Romney blew it and revealed how seriously maladroit he is when it comes to foreign affairs and national security," said Steve Clemons, the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. "An attack on an Embassy, the murder of U.S. officials including an Ambassador, is an attack on all Americans and the idea of America — and Romney gave terrorists what they want — a divided country still torn emotionally and politically by the events of 9-11. Romney talks of leadership but with his reckless commentary when events were fragile and still unfolding, he belly-flopped."