An instant consensus appears to have developed among reporters and commentators that Mitt Romney made a mistake when he released a statement last night condemning the Obama administration's response to attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt. At Romney's hastily-arranged news conference in Florida Wednesday morning, nearly every question was predicated on the assumption that Romney's statement was a miscalculation. Also on Wednesday morning, journalist Mark Halperin, a reliable indicator of media insider sentiment, tweeted that Romney's decision at the news conference to repeat his criticism of the Obama administration's action could be the "most craven and ill-advised move of '12."
But Romney was, and is, right. As events in Benghazi and Cairo unfolded, the Obama administration's first instinct was to apologize for any offense Muslims might have taken from an Internet video, made in America, that mocked and ridiculed the prophet Mohammed, and which the radicals cited as the cause for their actions. In his original statement last night, Romney said, "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." Then, on Wednesday morning, Romney said the administration "was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions."
And that is exactly what the administration did. First, when embassy staff in Cairo knew there was trouble but before Islamist radicals overran the walls, the embassy released this statement:
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.
That was before the most serious problems. Afterward the radicals had breached the walls, torn down the American flag and replaced it with an Islamist banner, the embassy sent out a tweet (now deleted), which said: "This morning's condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy." It is not clear if the embassy actually sent out a statement condemning the breach, but it most certainly sent out a statement condemning any possible offense against Muslim sensibilities.
Then, early Thursday morning, after the extent of the violence in Libya and Egypt was known, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a three-sentence statement, the first two sentences of which addressed possible offense to Muslims. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," Clinton said. "Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind." Clinton's statement was: Regret, affirmation, condemnation, in that order.
So after the initial statement of apology for the video, there were two statements in which the Obama administration reacted apologetically to the attacks in Libya and Egypt. When Romney took to the microphone in Florida, he was careful to say that the administration "was wrong to stand by" its original pre-attack apology.
To the Romney campaign, the events reveal an administration that is too eager to apologize for the United States. "When you have a situation that is unfolding rapidly, a lot of times people fall back to first instinct, and in that first instinct, which is more reflex than strategic thought sometimes, you get to see what they think is most important," says former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a prominent spokesman for the Romney campaign. Pawlenty says that one might assume the administration would instantly condemn such attacks, "but it takes them three statements and the better part of a day to get to that point."
About 7:20 Wednesday morning, President Obama released a statement that first and foremost condemned the attacks. Only after that condemnation did Obama add, "While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally opposed the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants."
Later Wednesday morning, both the president and Secretary of State Clinton made second statements, both tough condemnations of the violence. But Romney remains right: the administration's first instinct was to express regret for hurting any Muslim feelings, and not to strongly condemn attacks against the United States.