Tufts Professor: On Attacks, Romney Spoke Too Soon

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The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the resulting deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans has brought foreign policy front and center in the race for president.

The Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is receiving widespread criticism — including from within his own party — over statements he made blasting President Obama just hours after the attacks in the region began.

WBUR's Steve Brown spoke with Dan Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, about Romney's response.

Steve Brown: What do you make of Romney's initial statement and ensuing press conference? He criticized the president, saying that he was sympathizing with the attackers in Egypt and Libya and essentially apologizing for an anti-Muslim online video made in the United States.

Dan Drezner: I think it's safe to say he acted too quickly. He issued that comment before all the facts were in, and obviously it didn't look good once everyone became aware of the death of the Libyan ambassador. And then he doubled down on it the next morning, even though it was pretty clear by that point that the statement that he was attacking came from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and clearly had not been approved either by the White House or the State Department, for that matter.

Give us a little Diplomacy 101, if you will, in terms of how a president and the secretary of state should respond in a situation like this, where an ambassador and three other Americans are killed, there are anti-American protests going on in the Middle East. We hear about being presidential, somber, mournful, authoritative, but avoiding politics. How does someone do all that?

After the incidents in Cairo and Benghazi, I would hope that the administration, in addition to sending the Marines, obviously, to Libya, is also making sure that embassies across the region are prepared for the kind of protests that you saw in Cairo. And I think that's in some ways the first and most important priority of the administration. And then once you know that your people are relatively safe, that's when you can presumably talk about it a little less circumspectly to the public.

How does someone who is a candidate for office, with little or no foreign policy experience, and not privy to all of the information that the White House and the State Department has, respond to a fast-developing international crisis?

Well, I would say two things. First of all, there's always the political version of the Hippocratic Oath, which is, "first do no harm." And in this case, it's first don't say anything unless you feel pretty confident in the information you have. It should also be noted that Mitt Romney, as a major party nominee, should be getting a national security and intelligence briefing now. And that's been the tradition for decades now. But what's interesting is that Romney actually hasn't received his first intelligence briefing, and it's not clear why.

How does he get his message across without interfering or interjecting politics into the situation?

I think he should have at least, you know, originally said, obviously, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the affected embassy staff as well as those with families." And then probably it would have made sense to not say much until more information was available. And that way, the press probably in some ways would have done Romney's work for him. Because obviously, having an embassy attacked and having a consulate burned to the ground do not seem like good headlines politically for the Obama administration. So as a result, had Gov. Romney not said anything, in all likelihood the press would have started asking harder questions of Hillary Clinton and of Barack Obama — things like why wasn't the consulate in Benghazi better fortified, and things like that. Valid questions that should be asked.

Up until just yesterday, the economy was at the forefront of the presidential race. Does this change the focus to foreign policy and which candidate is better up to the task?

Well obviously it changes — the news cycle is going to be dominated by this for a little bit. Foreign policy is one of those things that I think the public doesn't care that much about. But that said, they do want to have a certain comfort level with whoever they vote for. They want to be comfortable that that person can fulfill the commander-in-chief role. And there is going to be a full debate on foreign policy, and it's the last debate in October, and so that might have a residual effect as well. If this sustains itself, then it becomes a headache for President Obama. And it's a justified hit on whether President Obama has a Middle East policy that's working or not. If, on the other hand, this dies down without any more loss of life or anything like that, then it'll probably sort of fade from view and not be that much of an issue.

This program aired on September 13, 2012.


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