by Benjamin J. Kirby
As you've likely read by now, Ambassador Chris Stevens and Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith were among four Americans who lost their lives in Benghazi, Libya yesterday, in an attack that is looking increasingly like it was planned. Our thoughts are with the family of Ambassador Stevens, Mr. Smith and his family, and those who died serving our country overseas.
Mitt Romney made a statement, too, here. In it, he disgracefully politicized the moment by attacking President Obama -- a shameful, misleading line of attack he has repeated again today.
Romney accused the Obama administration Tuesday night of sympathizing with the protesters who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. At the time of his statement, U.S. officials had confirmed that one American had been killed in Benghazi. Wednesday morning, the White House announced that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
But the embassy statement that Romney was criticizing was issued before the protests in Egypt and before the Benghazi attack.
Rather than set aside politics, Romney has decided to focus on a political line of attack. For proof that Romney's comments are motivated solely by sagging poll numbers in key swing states, we can look not to Republican foreign policy experts for his lead, but a tweet from the head of the GOP, which said, "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic."
By politicizing this international tragedy, Romney has presented his fellow Republicans with a sword on which they are apparently -- and wisely -- not willing to fall:
"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.
"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."
"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."
Peggy Noonan, of the Wall Street Journal and a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan was quoted as saying, "I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours."
Indeed, not. With respect to the Romney/Ryan campaign, this is bad news bordering on the disastrous.
But let's remember: this is not an isolated event. It is likely the tipping point of something we have seen coming for some time.
It can perhaps be chalked up to a campaign trail gaffe to suggest that Russia is this country's "number one geopolitical foe," (and then have ridiculous -- but admittedly dangerous -- Russian thug Vladimir Putin thank you for it).
As political watchers, it is our responsibility to criticize the Republican nominee for President of the United States when he selects as his running mate a man who also has no foreign policy experience... And we can roll our collective eyes at the irony of those who actually believe Mitt Romney was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden.
It is disgraceful, to be sure, when at the Convention nominating the Republican nominee for President, the man being nominated devotes just 46 seconds of his acceptance speech to his foreign policy agenda.
I've said before that this election will hinge on the economy. That is widely accepted conventional wisdom, mostly because it is true. Folks are focused on jobs and their pocketbooks, and frankly, that is probably how it should be.
I have also wondered, in the past, if anything redirected even just a bit of the American attention to international affairs, if that wasn't an automatic plus for President Obama. The notion that anything related to foreign policy helped the President became, if you will, more true, given that the Romney/Ryan team, as noted above, has doubled-down on the economy as their message and apparently totally written off anything to do with world affairs.
The deaths of honorably serving Americans -- anywhere, not just the four Americans in Benghazi yesterday -- "help" no one politically. They are awful, sad reminders that we live in a volatile, often dangerous world.
This moment, this tragic, awful moment in Libya was a test -- a leadership test.
And Mitt Romney failed.