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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT