Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Romney foreign policy attack was disgraceful

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
September 18, 2012 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mitt Romney used the tragedy of the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya to score political points, says John Avlon.
Mitt Romney used the tragedy of the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya to score political points, says John Avlon.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Romney, slipping in polls, wrongly slammed Obama over Egypt, Libya attacks
  • He says despite facts to contrary, Romney said Obama was sympathetic to attackers
  • Avlon: The move, apparently for political points, was widely condemned even among GOP
  • Avlon says politics must yield in crisis, as past politicians have known

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- "Partisanship ought to end at the water's edge" is a longstanding adage of American politics.

But in the hours after the death of the first U.S. ambassador killed in decades, Mitt Romney -- panicked as his poll numbers have slipped -- punched hard against the president, unleashing an unwise, inaccurate and unpresidential attack on the Obama administration.

John Avlon
John Avlon

The fog of war applies to the confusion about the timeline of ugly incidents in the Middle East on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo released a statement condemning the obscure and intentionally inflammatory film that had already given rise to riots, the Romney campaign saw an opportunity to amplify its "Obama-Apologizes-For-America" narrative.

Politics: Romney's political pretzel over Libya

Despite the fact that U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya came under attack after that embassy statement, with crowds besieging the Cairo embassy and the consulate in Benghazi in the late hours of September 11, the campaign released a statement from Romney saying, "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."

This barely qualifies as dog-whistle politics. At a moment when sovereign U.S. soil was under attack by Islamist radicals, the Romney campaign tried to tie the president to those extremists attacking us, saying that he had "sympathy" with their cause.

And then, in the clear light of morning, Mitt Romney doubled down on the claim, repeating it -- perhaps for fear of appearing weak -- and his campaign released talking points to hammer home the point. He picked precisely the wrong time, and over the wrong issue, to go "bold."

Politics: Arab Spring turmoil evokes political response

Obama, Romney spar over Libya response
Free speech and incitement
Free speech and incitement
The timing of Romney's Libya criticism

This is not just politics as usual but something far lower. By point of comparison, when Ronald Reagan was confronted with the downed-helicopter rescue mission ordered by President Jimmy Carter to save the American hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Iran, he did not see it as opportunity to score political points. Instead, Reagan said, "This is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united." Likewise, George H.W. Bush, then also running for president, said "I unequivocally support the president of the United States -- no ifs, ands or buts -- and it certainly is not a time to try to go one-up politically. He made a difficult, courageous decision." (Hat-tip to The Atlantic for unearthing these statements.)

No wonder a wide array of Republican foreign policy experts rose to condemn Romney's comments, including the longtime speechwriter and senior aide to Sen. John McCain, Mark Salter, who wrote: "to condemn (Obama) for policies they claim helped precipitate the attacks is as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing."

I called one of the wise men of American foreign policy, Charles Hill, a longtime first deputy to Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz and now a professor at Yale and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, as well as the author of "Grand Strategies" and "Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism."

"In my opinion, Obama is rightly criticized for a foreign policy approach that has not been firm enough. But in this case, the Romney statement was overreaction and not proper," Hill said. "Romney should be standing as an American with Americans right now and not trying to narrowly pursue political profit. I would not have advised him to release that statement."

On the flip side were conservative populist luminaries like Sarah Palin, who took to Facebook, her only dependable perch these days, to write this: "We already know that President Obama likes to 'speak softly' to our enemies. If he doesn't have a 'big stick' to carry, maybe it's time for him to grow one." Once again, Palin proved that she doesn't have the temperament or the intellect to be within a thousand feet of the Oval Office.

Opinion: Libya killings show U.S. at risk n Arab world

It is also noteworthy that the Romney campaign's instinct is to attack the president on foreign policy but then refuse to articulate its own policy positions as a useful point of contrast. This "attack and distract" approach to politics is beneath the office; when you criticize there is an obligation to propose new solutions to the problem.

When Romney embarked on his European tour, he frequently cited the tradition of not criticizing a president while traveling overseas as justification for not answering questions about his own foreign policy beliefs. This seemed to many, including me, at the time to be a high-minded excuse to avoid answering specific questions. Now there is no doubt. It was not decency or a desire to get all the facts before condemning the president that restrained his campaign's rhetoric.

Many questions still remain. The online "film" that apparently provoked the attack seems thrown together and badly over-dubbed to create maximum insult to Islam. It has been promoted by some of the most discredited conspiracy entrepreneurs on our side of the Atlantic, including the "Reverend" Terry Jones, who advocated Quran-burning in the past. The American principle of defending free speech cannot be allowed to be compromised by fanatics anywhere for any reason.

There is, as the president said Wednesday in the Rose Garden, "no excuse" for the actions of this murderous mob in Libya or for the invasion of the embassy in Egypt. Reports are emerging that the Benghazi siege was a premeditated attack by our enemies. Hill describes unsettling parallels: "With the radical Muslims, there's a kind of connection between the crazy guys in Florida who make this film and the crazy guys in Libya who plan these attacks deliberately and use the films as an excuse, a provocation," he says. "There's a kind of demonic conspiracy between these two types of fringe groups, and it makes life less secure for the rest of us."

Opinion: Extremists don't speak for Libya

Romney is a good man, but his lack of core political beliefs combined with his otherwise admirable competitiveness has led him to make claims about opponents that are often overheated and unrelated to reality. The dishonest drumbeat that Obama travels around the world compulsively apologizing for America is a core Romney campaign tactic. This time, he went definitively too far -- trying to score petty political points with incomplete information at a time when our nation's embassies were being attacked overseas on the anniversary of September 11.

It was disgraceful.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT