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Behind Romney’s Decision to Attack Obama on Libya

September 12, 2012

WASHINGTON — To Mitt Romney, it seemed like an opportunity to draw a stark contrast: Protests were erupting in Cairo and Benghazi, Libya, apparently over an anti-Islamic video, the White House was in a nasty spat with the Israelis, and administration officials in Cairo had put out a statement urging religious tolerance. From the perspective of the Republican’s campaign, the time was ripe to cast President Obama again as someone apologizing for America who abandoned longtime allies and failed to defend American interests.

So on Tuesday evening, Mr. Romney, according to his staff, signed off on a blunt attack on a statement issued early in the day — before the first protests had happened — by the American Embassy in Cairo. The Romney comment characterized the embassy statement as a weak White House response to violence at American diplomatic facilities in Egypt and Libya that ended up claiming the life of the ambassador to Libya and three others.

“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,” said the statement, issued about 10:30 p.m.

But by Wednesday morning, as the sequence of events and the scope of the tragedy in Benghazi became more clear, Mr. Romney’s initial statement and ensuing comments were coming under attack as clumsy at best. By later in the day, even some Republican allies were declining to follow his lead, and some acknowledged that he looked as if he was trying to score points in the middle of a crisis.

For a country looking to understand how Mr. Romney, a Republican candidate with no foreign policy experience, would respond to a major crisis, this was a first glimpse. And as an adviser to the campaign who worked in the George W. Bush administration said on Wednesday, Mr. Romney’s accusation that Mr. Obama had invited the attacks because he had weakened America looked like “he had forgotten the first rule in a crisis: don’t start talking before you understand what’s happening.”

The statement that seemed to backfire on Mr. Romney was a team effort, his aides said, written by a group of aides who focus on policy, another that focuses on political strategy and another on communications. Mr. Romney himself signed off on it, they said. In fact, the Cairo statement he was linking to the violence — issued by the embassy, where the ambassador, Anne Patterson, is a career Foreign Service officer who was a favorite of President Bush when she was ambassador to Pakistan — was issued around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday in Cairo, before any attacks had happened.

It was an effort to pre-empt protests by disassociating the United States government from an anti-Muslim video that was beginning to be viewed on the Web by Egyptians. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the statement said, a relatively routine statement, one that embassies frequently issued during the Bush years.

The first protests in Cairo, which resulted in a few protesters’ scaling the walls of the embassy before they were tracked down by the Egyptian police, came about six hours later. Nothing had yet happened in Benghazi.

Mr. Romney and his team, though, saw what they believed was an opportunity to underscore a theme Mr. Romney had sounded often about his Democratic rival.

“We’ve had this consistent critique and narrative on Obama’s foreign policy, and we felt this was a situation that met our critique, that Obama really has been pretty weak in a number of ways on foreign policy, especially if you look at his dealings with the Arab Spring and its aftermath,” one of Mr. Romney’s senior advisers said on Wednesday. “I think the reality is that while there may be a difference of opinion regarding issues of timing, I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”

Mr. Romney and his aides stood by the critique even though the administration later said the Cairo statement had not been cleared by the White House. In a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, Mr. Romney said the statement and the administration’s disavowal of it “reflects the mixed signals they’re sending to the world.”

Mr. Romney also said repeatedly that the Cairo Embassy had put out a statement “after their grounds had been breached” by protesters. Though the statement was issued before any protesters were inside, embassy personnel evidently did reiterate the statement on Twitter after the protests and then sought to erase the message.

“I think it’s a terrible course to — for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation,” Mr. Romney said. “Apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

The news that the American ambassador to Libya had been killed, along with three other embassy officers, led many other Republicans to condemn the attacks, but Mr. Romney’s brief news conference — sandwiched between appearances by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama — was used instead to repeat the political critique.

Mr. Romney left many policy questions hanging. Would he have countermanded any effort to issue a news release to the Egyptian people that tried to forestall a protest before it gathered outside the embassy? If Mr. Obama’s policies had created an air of weakness in the Middle East that encouraged attacks, how could he explain the many attacks on American facilities in the region under Mr. Bush, or the far larger attack on American facilities in Lebanon — killing more than 240 people — under President Ronald Reagan?

While many top Republicans steered clear of criciticizing the Obama administration, Mr. Romney did have some allies, including Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been involved in victims’ rights, but this is like a judge telling the woman that got raped, you asked for it because of the way you dressed,” Mr. Kyl said. “For a member of our State Department to put out a statement like that? It had to be cleared by somebody. They don’t just do that at the spur of the moment.”

David Sanger reported from Washington, and Ashley Parker from Jacksonville, Fla. Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting from Washington.

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