The partisan bickering of the presidential campaign never really takes a break, even when tragedy strikes. Case in point: Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his staff were killed Tuesday night in a violent assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi by protesters angered by an anti-Muslim film that had been disseminated on the internet. Despite the fact that Stevens was the first U.S. envoy to have been killed abroad in more than two decades — on the 11-year anniversary of 9/11 no less — the Obama and Romney campaign almost instantly turned on each other. Mitt Romney's campaign blasted the Obama administration for its "disgraceful" response to the violence, while Team Obama said it was "shocked" that Romney would politicize an international crisis. And with that skirmish, foreign policy took center stage for the first time in the campaign. Here, four takeaways from the campaigns' dueling responses:
1. Romney jumped the gun
The Romney campaign was first out of the gates on Tuesday night, blasting the Obama administration for apologizing for the video instead of condemning the violence. The problem? The supposed apology came not from Obama, but from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." Even worse, this statement was issued before the attacks in Libya even began — and certainly before Stevens was killed. As more information trickled in from Libya, "the Romney statement looks worse and worse — and simply off-key," says NBC's First Read. "Why didn't the Romney campaign wait until it had all the facts?" Romney's hasty attempt to score political points ended up breaking "with a tradition of unity around national tragedies," and even Republicans are describing his first response as an "utter disaster," says Ben Smith at BuzzFeed.
2. Then Romney doubled down
On Wednesday morning, Romney stood by his campaign's initial statement, arguing that Obama had sent mixed messages to the world and that "it's never too soon to stand up for American values." The continued attacks on the White House during a crisis could "be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign," says Mark Halperin at TIME. And "don't look to Republican leaders to defend Mitt Romney's attack," says Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon. In stark contrast with Romney, Republican leaders in the House and Senate refrained from questioning the administration.
3. But Romney made it clear how he differs from Obama
"One can question the timing and tone of Mitt Romney's" response, says William Kristol at The Weekly Standard. "One can note he wasn't as fluent and clear as he might have been." But Romney made clear his foreign policy differences with Obama, speaking in the voice of "conservative internationalism." Yes, Team Romney believes that his tough stance will highlight Obama's allegedly off-hand approach to the Arab Spring, and "set in motion a larger debate about U.S. interests in a region full of new and potentially hazardous political transformation," says Major Garrett at The Atlantic.
4. And Obama has his own problems
Obama didn't mention Romney by name on Wednesday, but in his remarks from the White House, he implicitly rejected his opponent's assertion that his administration had apologized for American values, saying, "The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal attacks." Obama came off looking presidential, but he still has to deal with "a full-blown foreign policy crisis just two months before the presidential election," says Toby Harnden at Britain's The Daily Mail. Questions about embassy security and Obama's approach to the Arab Spring are bound to be raised. And unless he "shows steely resolve in confronting these latest attacks," Obama may open himself to accusations of being too soft on Islamic extremists, says Max Boot at Commentary.