The circumstances surrounding an overnight mob attack in Libya that resulted in the death of the American ambassador and three of his staff members were still being investigated Wednesday. The Obama administration suspected the deadly violence in Libya may have been planned in advance, compared with the more spontaneous outburst outside an American Embassy in Cairo. Yet even before the details were clear, Mitt Romney exploited the volatile situation for political gain with inaccurate and inappropriate criticism of the Obama administration.
After pledging to take a day off from campaign attacks to honor the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Romney responded late Tuesday night to violence at the American Embassy in Cairo with a harshly critical statement: "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.''
Two problems: First, the response was a statement from the embassy in Cairo that was released hours before Americans were attacked. Second, the statement was aimed at preventing violence and calming the angry response over the release of Innocence of Muslims, a hateful film critical of Islam and heavily promoted by fringe anti-Islamic Gainesville pastor Terry Jones. The embassy had criticized the movie as the handiwork of "misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.'' Romney disingenuously seized upon the statement as a "disgrace" that sympathized with the protesters rather than a condemnation of the attacks.
The Republican nominee continued to exploit the situation on Wednesday in Jacksonville, after the deaths of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his staff members. While seasoned congressional Republicans condemned the violence and avoided criticism, Romney accused the Obama administration of offering an apology for America's values. The statement may have been inartfully worded in the heat of the moment and later disavowed by the White House, but there was no apology from the United States to factions who killed Americans. Criticizing a hateful video does not mean siding with protesters or violent extremists attacking Americans on foreign soil.
There are unanticipated turns of events in every political campaign that provide insights about the candidates, their judgment and their grace under pressure. Romney's factual mistake, exploitation of an evolving situation in which Americans were killed, and poor timing is one of those moments.