Hand it to President Obama. He really knows how to slip in the knife. On Wednesday, after Mitt Romney’s appalling response to the Egyptian embassy attacks, Obama told CBS’s 60 Minutes: “Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.” As president, Obama said, it is important “to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts and that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them.”
If you think those comments were simply a reference to Romney, you’re wrong. They’re a sly effort to link Romney’s foreign policy style to George W. Bush’s, which is exactly what Obama did to John McCain. The amazing thing is that Romney makes it so easy.
Romney’s foreign policy views might be summed up as “Bushism without money.” Bush’s foreign policy, especially in his first term, consisted of a hyper-aggressive, hyper-expensive effort to use the 9/11 attacks to extend American dominance of the greater Middle East without much serious thinking about whether such an effort could succeed. Romney can’t continue that effort because Americans are sick of it and the federal coffers are empty. What’s left is bluster and apple pie. Romney rarely discusses how long he wants to continue the war in Afghanistan, for instance, but he constantly attacks Obama for apologizing too much and not believing in America.
The embassy response was a good example of this jingoism on the cheap. Before the Egyptian protests began, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had issued a statement condemning a crudely Islamophobic movie that was stirring anger in the Middle East. “We firmly reject,” it declared, “the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” Affirmation of free speech, check. Condemnation of bigotry, check. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. Then, 12 hours later, with rioters besieging the U.S. Embassy, the embassy tweeted: “This morning's condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.” This one’s debatable. One can argue that once the U.S. Embassy came under attack from violent thugs, reasserting the condemnation of the film was a mistake. On the other hand, the tweet also condemned the embassy attacks themselves, and given that embassy officials likely feared for their lives, they deserve a little slack. In any case, the Obama administration disavowed the tweet, and Secretary of State Clinton put out a well-modulated statement: “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. 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.”
At this point, Romney weighed in, declaring that “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.” Let us count the lies. First, both the Cairo embassy and Obama central did condemn the attacks. The only statement that didn’t was the one the embassy issued before the attacks began. Second, disavowing a bigoted film and sympathizing with those who use it to justify violence are not the same thing. The only substantive difference between the Obama and Romney responses is that Romney never acknowledged the bigotry of the film, which is hardly surprising given how liberally his own party has been indulging in anti-Muslim bigotry of its own.
The next day, Romney doubled down, saying that the Obama administration had issued a “statement effectively apologizing for the right of free speech.” Uh, no. Apologizing for a bigoted film and apologizing for the free speech that gives someone the right to make a bigoted film are two utterly different things.
So why did Romney issue this parade of idiocies? Because he’s trying to paint Obama as someone who won’t stand up for America. As he said in his press conference on the embassy attacks, America must have “confidence in our cause, a recognition that the principles America was based upon are not something we shrink from or apologize for.” Romney’s campaign book is even called No Apologies.
For decades, this kind of thing worked. In 1972, Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, chastised George McGovern for saying, “I would go to Hanoi and beg if I thought that would release the boys [held as prisoners of war] one day earlier.” At the 1984 Republican Convention, Jeane Kirkpatrick famously said that Democrats “blame America first.”
But it’s not working this time. Despite his bluster, Nixon withdrew American ground troops from Vietnam. Although Ronald Reagan talked like John Wayne, the only country he invaded was Grenada. By contrast, George W. Bush launched two disastrous wars, and in so doing gave GOP bluster a bad name. As early as 2004, John Kerry was mocking Bush’s faux-tough call for Iraqi insurgents to “bring it on.” In the 2008 debates, Obama mocked John McCain for singing “bomb, bomb, bomb” Iran.
You’d think Romney’s advisers would realize that in a country where thousands have died and tens of thousands have been maimed because a tough-talking Republican president got in over his head, mindless jingoism might not be the best campaign strategy. When Republican convention delegates cheer Clint Eastwood for condemning the war in Afghanistan, you know something in the country has changed. But the people advising Romney on foreign policy haven’t changed as a result of the last 10 years. Very few have publicly acknowledged the disasters they helped bring about. They’re basically pretending that the Bush years never happened and that Romney can play Reagan to Obama’s Carter or Nixon to Obama’s McGovern. That strategy is backfiring so badly that it may help cost Romney the presidency. It’s enough to make you believe in America.