Mitt Romney has suffered a fresh setback in the US election campaign today, with a bungled statement concerning the lethal assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi.
The Benghazi assault was briefly reported late on Tuesday night, US time. By Wednesday morning it was clear the assault had caused the death of US ambassador Chris Stevens, several other US staff and several Libyan security personnel.
The initial, ostensible cause of the embassy storming was said to be the release of a trailer for a film Innocence of Muslims, allegedly produced by a shadowy California Israeli-American named “Sam Bacile”. Promoted by notorious “burn the Koran” pastor Terry Jones, and with a trailer released on YouTube, the film alleges that Muhammed was a shyster, p-edophile and thug.
Protests in Cairo and Benghazi followed. The latter were blamed initially on disgruntled pro-Gaddafi forces, hoping to create mayhem in the new Libya. Later it was alleged that al-Qaeda was behind the protests, timing them to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11.
Whatever the case may be — and there is some doubt that an actual film exists, beyond the 14-minute trailer already aired — the event proved exactly the sort of curve ball moment that can throw the US election in a fresh direction.
Sadly, for Romney, the direction seems to have been “away”, with widespread condemnation on left and right for his knee-jerk and haphazard approach to the issue.
Responding to the initial reports on Tuesday night, Romney latched onto a statement made by the Egyptian embassy, which had also come under attack, and in which it claimed:
“Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honouring 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.”
Romney latched onto the last part of the embassy statement, and made a hasty statement accusing the Obama administration of apologising for America, on the Tuesday night. Too hasty, as it turned out. By early Wednesday morning word started to get out that the ambassador and others had been killed, and that the statement had been an interim one by the Egyptian embassy itself, not the White House. Yet, late in the morning, the Republican presidential candidate decided to “double-down” on the accusation, cancelled a rally in Jacksonville, Florida, and organised a hasty press conference to hammer home the message.
Though he knew by now that the initial statement had come from the US Egyptian embassy, and not the White House itself, Romney continued to act as if the statement had come straight from Obama, and tie it firmly to him. Asked how he could do this, Romney replied that well “it’s their administration”.
Romney’s actions gained condemnation for two reasons — first for bumping up a press release to come out in the late hours of 9/11 — which have become a de facto political no-go zone — and for insisting upon the culpability of the Obama administration in blind denial of the facts. Heavy-hitters of the centre-hard-right, such as National Journal and Peggy Noonan, both came out to condemn Romney, and by the end of the day it was becoming a black mark against his judgment. Later on, inevitably, remarks were found from the Mittster in 2010, when he condemned inflammatory anti-Islam statements.
Though there has been some push-back from stalwart rightards at National Review, the consensus is that Romney has repeated the mistake of 2008 — when John McCain declared that he was suspending his campaign to fly back to Washington and help with the financial crisis, while Barack Obama spent two days talking to experts before making a statement.
It is far from the most important thing about the crisis — at the moment at least, with 50 US Marines about to make landfall in Libya — but it was an unforced own goal for Romney and the Republicans, leaving many of the latter to believe that they have a disaster on their hands.