WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday morning, hours after the deaths of four U.S. diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Mitt Romney put his campaign on the line by attacking President Barack Obama and the besieged diplomats in the Middle East.
Romney, in a statement released Tuesday night, had called the president's handling of the Libya and Egypt attacks "disgraceful." Wednesday morning, Romney hastily scrapped a campaign rally in Jacksonville, Fla., dismantling a campaign stage, and instead held a small press conference in which he repeatedly defended his criticism of the administration, slamming embassy officials in Cairo and President Obama. "When our grounds are being attacked, and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America's values is never the right course," he said, slamming the Obama administration for "sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks."
The attacks at the consulate in Libya, and a separate incident at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, came on a day of violence and anger over rumors of an anti-Islamic film scheduled for released in the United States and circulated on the Internet.
Romney's assault on Obama was rare among Republicans. Sarah Palin and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus joined him in condemning the president, but no other significant GOP leader thought it prudent to immediately single out the president for criticism. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) all put out statements on the crisis, none attacking Obama.
A host of Republican foreign policy officials were quick to blast the "utter disaster" that was Romney's response.
Romney's reference to an "apology for America's values" was directed at a statement the U.S. Embassy in Cairo put out on Tuesday morning, but that statement, which was itself responding to the outrage over the anti-Islamic film, was issued before the embassy was attacked, despite Romney's statement to the contrary. What's more, the statement does not apologize for America's values, but rather supports a founding American value, religious tolerance, while referencing the "universal right of free speech." The statement in full:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
Romney's rash condemnation of the president, released after it was known that there had been U.S. fatalities, calls to mind Sen. John McCain's snap decision in 2008 to suspend his presidential campaign to deal with the financial crisis. The move was judged deeply unpresidential and contributed to his defeat.
After the Cairo embassy's initial statement, as a mob protest outside the embassy heated up, even entering the compound, and commentators in the U.S. suggested the embassy condemn the protesters, the embassy responded through its Twitter feed: "Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we’re the ones actually living through this."
The embassy added: "Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry."
The diplomats in Cairo survived the assault on their embassy. When the protests spread to Libya, diplomats there weren't so lucky: Four U.S. State Department officials, including Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, were killed in an hourslong assault. Romney responded by attacking the diplomats in Cairo.
"The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached, protesters were inside the grounds," said Romney at his press conference. "They reiterated that statement after the breach. I think it's a -- a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values."
Did Romney expect the Cairo diplomats to retract their defense of religious tolerance in the face of the attack? Or did Romney expect the Obama administration to denounce the diplomats who were under siege?
"It's their administration," said Romney, referring to the embassy in Cairo. "Their administration spoke. The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth but also from the words of his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department. They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. The statement that came from the administration -- and the embassy is the administration -- the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology. And I think was a severe miscalculation."
Reporters in Washington have been as quick to condemn Romney as he was to condemn Obama and the embassy officials. "Unless Mitt has gamed crisis out in some manner completely invisible to Gang of 500, doubling down=most craven+ill-advised move of '12," Time's Mark Halperin tweeted, referring to the Beltway establishment.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama, meanwhile, struck a somber and emotional tone, offering remembrances for the American diplomats who lost their lives in the violence.
In an appearance in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, flanked by Clinton, the president spoke about the events the night before, pledging that the incidents would "not break the bonds between the United States and Libya."
"We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," Obama said, referencing the anti-Islamic video, "but there is no justification for this kind of violence. None."
Libyan security workers had helped bring other American diplomats to safety during the crisis, Obama noted, and had transported the ambassador to the hospital.
"It is especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it's a city he helped to save at the height of the Libyan revolution," Obama said.
Earlier in the morning at the State Department, a shaken Clinton talked about Stevens and the other diplomats who had been killed and strongly denounced the attacks at the outpost in Libya.
"This is an attack that should shock the conscience of people of all faiths around the world," she said. "We condemn in the strongest terms this senseless act of violence."
With her eyes occasionally watering, Clinton spoke at length about Ambassador Stevens, whom she knew well and whom she had personally dispatched to Libya at the beginning to the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, to be the American attache to the rebel leadership.
"He arrived on a cargo ship in the port of Benghazi and began building our relationship with the Libyan revolutionaries," she said. "He risked his life to stop a tyrant, then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya. The world needs more Chris Stevenses."
Clinton too pledged to maintain America's relationship with Libya, although she conceded that events like those on Tuesday challenged even her certainty.
"Today many Americans are asking -- indeed, I ask myself -- how could this happen," Clinton said. "How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction. This question reflects just how complicated, and at times how confounding, the world can be. But we must be clear-eyed even in our grief: This was an attack by a small and savage group, not the people or the government of Libya."