By Bob Cesca: This week, Vanity Fair published a beautifully written article about the president by Michael Lewis who happened to use the American involvement with the NATO military action in Libya as a through-line. It’s possibly the best insider piece on the president since a 2008 Newsweek series that pulled back the curtain on the president’s successful 2008 campaign.
In addition to covering the often harrowing, emotionally tumultuous and purely weird aspects of life in the White House, as well as the president’s insider tips on what’s required to be the leader of the free world (for example, Obama recommended daily exercise or the job with “break you down”), the article covered a meeting of the “principals” in the Situation Room as the administration was readying a plan to keep Qaddafi from committing wholesale genocide in Benghazi. There were two options for the president: 1) participate with Europe in a completely ineffectual no-fly zone (Qaddafi was only using ground forces in his march to Benghazi), or 2) do nothing. The president determined, with obvious reason, that both options were unacceptable in spite of recommendations from both Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton. History shows that a combination no-fly zone and air-strike operation was successfully engaged, culminating with the death of Qaddafi, a rapid end to the mission and free elections.
Regardless of the specifics, it’s clear that the president approaches foreign policy decisions with deadly seriousness and doesn’t kneejerk into tight spots. Furthermore, the president told Lewis that he absolutely dislikes the notion of “feigned outrage.” The president, Lewis reported, values disciplined authenticity over bluster — another trait that’s helpful when dealing with sensitive overseas events.
As I read the article on Monday, I had no idea what was about to occur both in Libya and in the context of the campaign for president.
We’re all aware of what happened and, in general, the sequence of events.
To review, it all began with a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo which attempted to preemptively mitigate the impact of an anti-Islamic no-budget American “movie” (it hardly qualifies as a movie) that was due to be released. The statement was critical of religious intolerance while defending the “universal right” to free speech. Nevertheless, unarmed protesters gathered outside the embassy and eventually climbed over the wall of the compound where they desecrated an American flag.
Meanwhile, a second attack, this time with rockets, was reported at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya — possibly by al-Qaeda, though there’s no official confirmation as of this writing — and Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith was killed.
Next, the Romney campaign issued a statement indicting the embassy and the president for “apologizing” for American values and “sympathizing” with the protesters in Cairo and the violent militants in Benghazi — even though the embassy statement was issued before both events. However, the statement was embargoed by Romney until midnight when the observance of a 9/11 political truce was due to end. But minutes later, at around 10:30 eastern, the Romney campaign lifted the embargo on its statement. It was still the 11th but Romney just had to stick his bulbous head into the political shit.
At that point, the Obama administration and Secretary Clinton issued a statement unequivocally condemning the attack in Libya.
“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.”
Then, at midnight, an overzealous Reince Priebus jumped onto Twitter and wrote, “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.” Question: how does one “sympathize” with attackers before there are any attackers, especially when, 90 minutes earlier, the administration condemned the attack? The Romney campaign and the Republican Party chairman were constructing a huge lie. Again.
Several hours later, two more embassy officials and Ambassador Chris Stevens were killed.
At 10:30 eastern Wednesday morning, 12 hours after the Romney campaign’s initial statement went public, Romney held a press conference in which he continued to politicize the attacks while trying really damn hard to appear presidential. Throughout the event, Romney repeated his assertions from 12 hours earlier that the president “sympathized” with the killers of Ambassador Stevens as well as the protesters in Cairo and “apologized” for American values.
Once again, Romney lied.
He stepped away from the podium with a self-satisfied grin on his face.
There wasn’t a single moment when Romney behaved like a competent national leader. Instead of waiting until all of the facts had been revealed — hell, instead of correctly acknowledging the facts and timelines that were absolutely known at the time — Romney popped off and turned a tragic event into the yet another example of his predilection for inaccurate, awkward, pathetic, neophyte partisan hackery. Much like John McCain’s colossal bungling of the financial crisis in 2008, Romney failed to rise to the occasion in the context of a real-life crisis. He reminded the nation of exactly why he’s 10 points behind the president on national security and foreign policy — typically a no-brainer win for militant Republicans. On one hand there’s President Obama who’s repeatedly displayed whip smarts and cool tenacity in every overseas endeavor in which he’s engaged, and on the other hand there’s a Republican candidate who not only lied about the timeline of events to score political points but also opened his yap before he knew the shot.
What ensued throughout yesterday morning was a mad dash among foreign policy experts, pundits and writers on both sides to see who could be the first to use the word “dilettante” to describe the increasingly embattled Republican nominee for president.
Interesting, isn’t it, how Romney’s spastic behavior and unhinged “sympathize” meme came on the heels of being goaded by Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and others to get tough and to be more hard-lined conservative. As predicted, Romney did just that. For the rest of the day, AM talk radio joined in with the “sympathize” and “apologize” meme. And, also as predicted, I suspect voters will be utterly disgusted by all of this while coupling it with other examples of Romney’s ineptitude and ungainly lack of political restraint.
One of Romney’s many miscalculations — and a mistake that many hawkish Republicans make is to confuse obnoxious loudness with foreign policy expertise.
The opposite of a foreign policy neophyte isn’t a scolding jerkass who pops off with saber-rattling bromides and political agitprop. Romney could have been a statesman about the events in North Africa and appeared dignified — perhaps qualified — in the process, but instead he decided to be a braying crackpot. Anyone with a lapel pin and a pulse can do that. Leaning on the warhawk slogan switch doesn’t amount to anything resembling international leadership gravitas.
Put another way, Rush Limbaugh thought Romney looked “presidential” yesterday.
I rest my case.
Let there be no doubt: if Mitt Romney somehow wins this thing, the slightest provocation from Iran will trigger Romney’s herky-jerky response cortex and we’ll be at war in the Middle East again without a rational plan or an exit strategy. The AM radio talkers will be effectively puppeteering the Romney White House, just as they did with Romney during this week’s tragic events.