Foreign Policy Criticism Is Great, But That's Not What Romney Did

Mitt Romney's attack on President Obama following the deadly assaults on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Libya and Egypt yesterday drew no shortage of scrutiny from journalists who pointed out (correctly) that Romney got wrong the basic chronology of the incidents, and questioned the propriety of Romney's comments overall. This in turn has led to a backlash from conservatives who are faulting the media's response to Romney, arguing that we are in a presidential campaign and Romney should be allowed to “criticize” the president on foreign policy.

No argument here. The challenger should absolutely critique the policies of the incumbent. But that's not what Romney did. The core of Romney's response was a personal attack on the president for “sympathizing” with the people who killed U.S. diplomatic personnel, and the conservatives lashing out at the media are trying to mask that personal attack as foreign policy “criticism.”

For example, the Wall Street Journal editorializes today that “the parsons of the press corps are offended by the debate. They're upset that Mitt Romney had the gall to criticize the State Department for a statement that the White House itself disavowed.” National Review editor Rich Lowry writes in Politico:

When a U.S. Embassy gets stormed by protesters overseas, it's usually a matter of public concern. It might occasion headlines and commentary. Even debate between presidential candidates.

Unless one of the candidates is President Barack Obama and the other is Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Then, everything changes.

In the immediate aftermath of the deadly attacks on U.S. diplomatic installations in Egypt and Libya, the political debate fastened on the propriety of Romney criticizing the administration for its initial response. You know -- important stuff.

Forget the dead body of our ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, who had been instrumental in aiding the rebellion. Forget the desecration of the embassy's flag in Cairo. Forget the question of what we're going to do to find the perpetrators or respond to two governments unable or unwilling to fulfill their most basic international responsibilities.

The reports from earlier this week about how Obama would use foreign policy as cudgel against Romney had barely faded when the media pack turned around and declared politics must stop at the water's edge, thank you very much.

The old complaint about Romney was that he didn't talk about foreign policy. The newly minted complaint about Romney was that he did talk about foreign policy. He gets it coming and going, and everywhere in between.

Lowry concludes: “If this isn't the time to talk about this record, when is the right time? For the press, politics doesn't stop at the water's edge. It stops wherever is most convenient for Obama's reelection campaign.” One thing you'll notice about Lowry's op-ed is that, for all its exhortations of the importance of critiquing Obama's record, he doesn't actually quote anything from Romney's statement on the embassy attacks. 

That's likely because Romney didn't actually critique Obama's record. Instead, he accused the president of sympathizing with the embassy attackers:

I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. 

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.

That statement has nothing to do with the president's policies. Rather, it uses the death of U.S. citizens as a springboard to assault the president's character. Think about it this way: What if in 2008, while U.S. soldiers were fighting and dying in Iraq, then-candidate Obama had rooted his criticism of George W. Bush's Iraq policy around the notion that Bush invaded as vengeance for Saddam Hussein plotting to assassinate his father? He would have been roundly condemned (and rightly so) for making an inflammatory personal charge about a life-and-death policy issue.

The conservatives carping about the flak Romney is taking over his Libya attacks might want to invest less time in figuring out how to blame the media and more time encouraging their candidates to adopt foreign policy positions that aren't sourced to their movement's absurdist fringe.