Pretty much everybody in politics, Republicans included, is shaking his or her head over Mitt Romney’s ham-handed attack on the Obama administration and equally clumsy follow-up today. But Romney’s strategy here was a perfectly straightforward application of the foreign-policy principles that have guided his campaign from the outset.
In the wake of his defeat in the 2008 GOP primary, Romney almost immediately started running for the 2012 nomination. At that time (well before the depth of the financial crisis was clear), Obama’s main political weakness appeared to be foreign policy. He was inexperienced in the field and associated (through a 2002 speech against the Iraq War) with a vulnerable dovish wing of the party. What’s more, he seemed vaguely foreign, and many Americans incorrectly believed he was Muslim. All this set the stage for Romney’s planned line of attack that Obama did not sufficiently love or appreciate his country and inappropriately coddled Muslim extremists, a line set forth in Romney’s campaign book No Apology, which castigated Obama for undertaking an international apology tour.
Now, the apology tour was a figment of the right-wing imagination. But this was beside the point. The point was that it set the tone Romney wanted: Obama apologizes for America to the bad guys, and Romney would stand firm for America.
And so, when militant Islamists attacked an American embassy, Romney automatically reverted to this line, releasing a statement charging “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.” This was triply false: (1) The statement in question was not made by the Obama administration but by the embassy staff, (2) it was not a response to the attacks but a (justifiably panicked) attempt to preempt them, in keeping with a long-standing bipartisan practice of distancing the U.S. from inflammatory religious provocation, and (3) it was not an expression of sympathy with attackers or other militants.
It’s not clear how well Romney would have understood the falsity of his claim. Perhaps he was confused about the timeline or the authorship, making his statement merely a single lie rather than a double or triple lie. In any case, Romney’s abhorrence of apologies required him to avoid steering his attack even slightly away from its original course. He insisted, “It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.”
Never too early? Not even before the attacks had occurred, which is when the statement in question was issued?
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.