When an amateur movie with anti-Muslim messages provoked mobs to storm U.S. diplomatic outposts across the Middle East, presidential candidate Mitt Romney was quick to decry those at fault. But he split the blame 50/50: one sentence condemning the attackers, one sentence condemning President Barack Obama.
“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,” Romney said. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Formulating an appropriate reaction to a move this petty is difficult, but fortunately, the man himself has given me a framework. I will direct that second sentence back at him with some slight modifications: It’s disgraceful that Romney’s first response was not to express his condolences to the loved ones of Americans killed on diplomatic missions, but to criticize his opponent in the upcoming election.
Picking partisan squabbles during an international crisis would be immature, opportunistic and indicative of a failure to grasp the gravity of the situation no matter what the timing. However, Romney’s comments take on an even nastier color in light of the fact that in publishing them, he broke an agreement between the campaigns to put aside their differences on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He did not even have the self-control to wait 12 hours before exploiting the tragedy for his own political purposes.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proved that responding to such a situation with strength and sensitivity is not an impossible task. Reading her statement, released 15 minutes before Romney’s remarks, makes them even more baffling. Clinton opens by saying that she “condemn[s] in the strongest terms the attack.” She goes on to impart that the administration is “heartbroken by this terrible loss,” and to reaffirm the country’s “commitment to religious tolerance” while maintaining that “there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” Finally, Clinton informs citizens that the U.S. government has reached out to Libya as well as other nations to “protect our personnel, our missions and American citizens worldwide.” This thoughtfully-constructed response reflects an understanding of true priorities in the face of a threat.
To be fair, Clinton’s position gives her particular authority in such a situation, and Romney is entangled in a political campaign that influences his every action. However, even with further time to reflect, Romney’s comments were disappointingly clumsy and tone-deaf. He somehow continued to misconstrue the administration’s assertive statement as “an apology for America’s values” and made vague recommendations for wielding “American leadership” since “the world remains a dangerous place.” What Romney apparently fails to understand is that shaking a fist at the world does not make for a strong foreign policy stance.
Had this been his only chance to give voters a glimpse as to how he would respond to international crises, perhaps the small sample size would allow us to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, this is not an isolated occurrence but part of a disturbing pattern of Romney mishandling foreign affairs. There were his awkward comments in Israel that somehow seemed to simultaneously insult both Israelis and Palestinians, and his infamous gaffes in London that lost him the respect of our closest ally. He identified Russia as our “number one geopolitical foe.” And though comments scorning 47 percent of Americans in a recently-leaked video have drawn the most outrage, the full video also shows him saying that Iran is run by “crazy people” and he thinks of Palestinians as “not wanting to see peace anyway.” These are not the type of sentiments that set the stage for successful negotiations.
The tragic attacks on American consulates and embassies should have provided an opportunity for the electorate to envision Romney as their stable leader in times of trouble. Instead, every time Romney steps onto the international scene, he makes it increasingly inconceivable that he could grow up enough to responsibly handle the complexity, delicacy and seriousness of foreign affairs in just a few short months.
Opinions Editor Stephanie Jones ’13 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Boulder, Colo. She majors in environmental studies and philosophy.