We're still learning more details about the events leading up to and surrounding the attacks by Islamic radicals on the U.S. consulate in Libya and embassy in Egypt, but the media has already agreed on one thing: Mitt Romney is the political loser.
"Unless the Romney campaign has gamed this crisis out in some manner completely invisible to the Gang of 500, his doubling down on criticism of the President for the statement coming out of Cairo is likely to be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign," opined Time's Mark Halperin.
That instant conventional wisdom is a pretty fortunate turn of events for Obama, given that it diverted focus from his administration's bungled handling of the entire situation and the failure of his broader foreign policy posture.
When President Obama came into his office, he vowed to repair the damage to the U.S. image abroad that was done by the Bush administration. In April 2009, less than three months into his presidency, he boasted to the Turkish government of having ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay and prohibited the use of torture. "The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history," he went on, referring to the legacies of slavery, segregation and the treatment of Native Americans.
In June, Obama delivered a speech in Cairo in which he called for "a new beginning" between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
Taken together, such instances became known in conservative circles as the "apology tour." Though fact checkers have pointed out that Obama never literally issued an apology, it's clear that Obama was trying to make a break with the past. Especially in the Middle East, he wanted to send the signal that his approach would be more conciliatory and sensitive to Islamic values than what preceded it.
Yet, on Tuesday, the breach of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11 and replacement of the American flag with one resembling the flag of al Qaeda represented an example of the type of anti-American sentiment that Obama's more conciliatory posture was meant to quell. Later, we learned that an American ambassador had been killed in an attack in Libya, along with three other diplomats.
When a statement surfaced from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo condemning, "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" and "firmly [rejecting] the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others," it looked like weakness in the face of the attack.
There are conflicting reports as to whether this statement -- a reference to an online American-made film mocking Islam -- was issued before or after the assault on the embassy started. But on its Twitter account, the Embassy later reiterated that its statement "still stands." Back in Washington, the Obama administration distanced itself from its own embassy's statement, which isn't some minor outpost but the representative of U.S. policy in arguably the most important Arab nation. Soon, the Embassy began deleting messages from its official Twitter account, including the one standing by its initial statement.
This looked like amateur hour, and it also fed into the broader critique many Republicans have made of the Obama administration. So it seemed natural that Romney would release a statement Tuesday night condemning both the attacks and Obama's weak response. But Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt shot back and said he was "shocked" Romney would play politics at such a time. And the media fell into line.
When Romney gave a press conference Wednesday, the questions focused on whether it was appropriate for him to criticize Obama at the time he did. Romney's responses didn't really matter, because reporters had already decided their narrative. Obama did not take any questions in his own press conference moments later.
In 2004, John Kerry routinely attacked President Bush's handling of Iraq when things weren't going well in the country. And the media dutifully reported on Bush's foreign policy blunders in Iraq. But now, instead of scrutinizing Obama's handling of a foreign policy crisis, the media has decided that the real story in Egypt and Libya is a Mitt Romney gaffe.
Philip Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.