09/19/2012 05:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Romney Should Have Attacked Obama: Anatomy of a Geopolitical Crisis

Clearly, there is no shortage of Mitt Romney statements that should be, as the man himself put it in a scrambling press avail before an Orange County, California fundraiser Monday night, more "elegantly stated." But the only Romney screw-up that particularly concerns me is the only one that will likely matter after the election.

Incidentally, amidst the disaster and tragedy of Benghazi, there is one very large silver lining to the tumult stirred up around the fringe right Christian fundamentalist "movie" attacking Islam: The demonstrations, while furious and widespread, haven't been very big.

Romney missed a big opportunity last week when he so foolishly and shallowly attacked President Barack Obama after the attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt. Because mistakes were made by the Obama Administration, mistakes that matter far beyond the usual vicious campaign ping pong, that call into question Obama's strategy as he attempts to execute America's geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with Asia and the Pacific.

An archive of my pieces related to the Pivot is located here.

Here is the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya where the attack which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans took place on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. As you can see, the place was essentially wide open. Investigations are underway with regard to the attack, which increasingly looks like a planned assault which utilized the protest against an anti-Muslim movie as cover.

Instead of making a ludicrously slipshod attack on Obama for supposedly failing to uphold American values -- presumably the value of idiotically attacking a religion and provoking an international crisis -- and siding with the protesters who stormed the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Romney could have and should have stopped and thought for a moment. Then he should have attacked on a much more obviously relevant set of points.

Why was our consulate in Benghazi -- and our popular ambassador to Libya, whose popularity threatened jihadist interests -- so lightly guarded on the anniversary of 9/11?

Why hasn't all of Obama's vaunted public diplomacy in the Islamic world bought America enough credit to head off wild protests against a truly preposterous little movie?

And, this is related to the second question, what in heaven's name does Obama think he is accomplishing in Afghanistan?

Admittedly, the third point is something of a reach for a guy like Romney, a reflexive super-hawk whose invariable answer to geopolitical crises is to "get tough," not that he's often, if ever, able to explain what that means or how it would work.

Let's take these one at a time, then analyze where things were and are on the Innocence of Muslims crisis.

1. What happened to 9/11 anniversary security?

There is a failure here either of intelligence or imagination.

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11 to open an American cultural center. He was operating out of a very lightly-defended consulate. He was a popular figure with the mostly secular moderates who defeated Islamists in the recent Libyan elections. He had a great story to tell of America helping the Arab Awakening. He had very limited security in a city awash with plenty of jihadist militias. What could possibly go wrong?

It's not easy to overestimate the loss of Stevens, an Arabic-speaking UC Berkeley alum and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco who worked throughout last year's Libyan revolution with the rebel council in Benghazi. Stevens, a terrific Californian whom I'd met, got bored with lawyering and joined the Foreign Service, rising through postings in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Tripoli. Last year, entered Benghazi on a Greek freighter in the early days of the rebellion against Gaddaif and stayed after Gaddafi threatened to destroy it. That was the threat that triggered the UN Security Council resolution authorizing intervention.

Machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, not seen in other protests, were heavily utilized in the assault that destroyed the US mission and killed Stevens, a Foreign Service colleague, and two former Navy SEALs attempting to guard Stevens. The small number of Libyan security personnel did attempt to protect the US consulate in Benghazi, but were apparently overwhelmed when jihadists used a crowd of protesters as cover for a military assault.

The US embassy in Cairo was stormed by protesters. But no military-style assault occurred there, though the American flag was defaced.

There were only a few other minor protests, which makes the Benghazi assault stand out all the more.

The wild protest in Cairo makes sense, as the anti-Islam film was getting big play in the media there after someone still unknown translated the 13-minute "trailer" into Arabic and posted it. But Benghazi?

The late Ambassador Chris Stevens, who served as the on-site American envoy to the rebel nation council during the Libyan revolution against longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi, in the video introducing his ambassadorial role.

In my opinion, the murder of Stevens was no chance or coincidental event. His success in working with such facility in the Arab and African worlds on America's behalf was a threat to jihadist interests. He had a long career ahead of him and a great story to tell in the Islamic world. Now his voice is stilled forever.

Libyan sources last Wednesday said that a jihadist group, Ansar al-Sharia (Support for Islamic Law) used the demonstration at the US consulate as cover for a coordinated assault on it and, later, on an American safe house where most personnel fled after the compound was overrun by heavily armed militants.

It doesn't matter if the conspiracy to stage a military assault on the consulate in Benghazi was in the works for months, weeks, days, or only hours. (The Arabic version of the video appeared online about a week prior to the 9/11 anniversary.) With US special ops and drone strikes continuing to devastate jihadist cadre, failing to anticipate a lethal attack around the 9/11 anniversary, failing to increase security around a very vulnerable ambassador, was foolhardy.

2. What is the real impact of Obama's public diplomacy in the Islamic world?

Obama delivered a major address to the Islamic world in June 2009 in Cairo, where of course our embassy was attacked last week. I wrote about it here on the same day in "Repositioning America: Obama's Cairo Speech as the Ultimate in Event Marketing." It was a heady moment.

And for a time, it worked. America's image in the Islamic world was up significantly. Then it slid back.

Romney could well have attacked Obama for empty arm-waving which accomplished nothing, perhaps juxtaposing images of Obama's soaring Cairo rhetoric with the mob attacking the US embassy and destroying the American flag.

That would have been the obvious thing for him to do, casting Obama as ineffectually well-meaning.

Of course, there are other factors which Romney would have undoubtedly ignored, but which we can't going forward.

For Obama's subsequent policies on Israel and Afghanistan undermine his Islamic engagement initiative outlined in the big 2009 Cairo address.

Nearly a year ago, after futilely trying to re-start the Middle East peace process between Israelis and Palestinians -- and seeing the present conservative Israeli government, which supposedly agreed to a freeze on settlements in disputed areas by religious fundamentalist, actually allow settlements to take place -- Obama delivered an address at the United Nations which essentially adopted the position of the Israeli government. Which makes all the criticism of Obama for supposedly abandoning Israel all the more, shall we say, ironic.

Then there is Afghanistan. While Obama did withdraw from Iraq as promised, he instituted a massive US military escalation -- much as he said he would during his campaign, incidentally -- and largely adopted a nation-building "counter-insurgency" approach rather than the more limited counter-terrorism approach advocated by Vice President Joe Biden and Obama's favorite general, now retired Marine General James "Hoss" Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As I've been writing for years, the plan, to put it mildly, hasn't worked.

It's also fueled a backlash against the US in the Islamic world, which had hoped that the advent of Obama meant a pullback from massive interventionism.

Romney, a vociferous advocate of the Vietnam War who toughed it out as a Mormon missionary in, er, France, has criticized Obama for setting a putative withdrawal date from Afghanistan. But Romney's certainly changed his tune before.

President Barack Obama, joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, paid tribute last Friday at Andrews Air Force Base to Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, including two former Navy SEALs, killed in the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, calling them patriots who served America's ideals.

3. The ongoing Afghanistan disaster.

I don't expect Romney to call for withdrawal from Afghanistan. He seems too cautious for that, too attached for sounding tough no matter what. But he certainly could hit Obama for the bad results there. And when these endless election hijinks are over, there must be a reckoning with regard to the Afghan War.

The situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate in spectacular fashion, with several spectacular Taliban attacks, including an acceleration of "green on blue" violence leading to the US and NATO calling off joint operations with their Afghan colleagues.

Not surprisingly in these circumstances, discipline and morale among our troops break down, which has led to a number of bad incidents further diminishing the American image.

We have taken victory there -- remember that our post-9/11 mission was to chase Al Qaeda out, take down the Taliban regime once it refused to turn over Osama bin Laden, and get bin Laden -- and turned it into a debacle. The US and its allies simply don't have to occupy the entire country in order to prevent Al Qaeda from again using it as its base.

However, all this seems beyond Romney, who since his silly attack of last week is now engaged in trying to justify why he thinks nearly half of all Americans are self-styled "victims" and losers who have no choice but to vote for Obama.

In the momentary media world in which Romney operates, his moment to say something effective and on point on our 9/11 anniversary tragedy has probably passed. The good news is that it may not recur, although something that just happened in France, which we'll get to in a moment, reminds that there are some who take a perverse delight in trying to incite fundamentalist Muslims.

Here is how the crisis has played out.

As I noted on New West Notes site over the weekend, the real question was how/if the Muslim rage sparked by the viciously witless hate-Islam "movie" Innocence of Muslims burns itself out. Protests after Friday prayers were sharp and frequently violent, and increasingly global in scope. But the crowds were not nearly as big as they might have been, and in my view were relatively small.

On Saturday, as I rather expected and strongly hoped, the protests abated to a very significant extent.

But there is long festering anger against America in the Islamic world, over invasions and Israel and cultural encroachment and modernity itself. There's also a tendency to use America, and Israel, as excuses. The video was a big match that landed in gasoline. There's plenty more of it lying around.

Romney, campaigning last Thursday in Virginia, had already backed away from his doubled-down criticism of Obama for supposedly "apologizing" to the people who attacked the US diplomatic missions on Tuesday.

The only question is why he doubled-down in a press conference last Wednesday when it was clear that he was wildly off-base.

As I noted then, the protests had spread across the Middle East and North Africa, even to India, where 5000 Muslims protested in Kashmir.

Fortunately, that was the largest of the protests, which were mostly relatively small but quite vociferous. It was a hard core Islamist contingent protesting, not a massification of protest.

Local security forces, more prepared this time, mostly contained the events, though thousands of Sudanese did some significant damage to German and British embassies in Khartoum. I am not sure what the Germans and Brits have to do with fringe radical Christians masquerading as Israelis in Southern California, but there it is.

New Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who has a doctorate from USC and was an engineering professor in Los Angeles before returning to Egypt to become a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, finally took to state TV to urge both his movement and the country as a whole to refrain from any attacks on or harassment of embassies or diplomatic personnel.

Speaking last week in Golden, Colorado, wrapping a two-day swing through Western battleground states Nevada and Colorado, President Barack Obama said that those who killed four Americans in Libya, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, will be "brought to justice." Obama sounded a martial note: "To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. It will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America."

Morsi, of course, as a former LA guy, could be very direct with his fellow religionists about how ludicrous this video really is. He certainly learned what a Hollywood production looks like while getting his doctorate at SC.

But I'm not sure how many of his constituents know all that much about his background. It might be a tad impolitic for him to reveal how Westernized he is. It would certainly set him up for attack by more radical Muslim groups as some sort of American agent.

Terrible as the deaths of Stevens, Foreign Service information officer Sean Smith, and the ambassador's swiftly beleaguered security guys, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, have been, shocking as the violent demonstrations were, the worst of this particular affair may be past.

But we know now that many things can set the situation alight anew. Even now, the decision of a French weekly to publish "satirical" images trashing Islam inflames matters once again. France, anticipating the worst, has suddenly shut down 20 embassies.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration continues its geopolitical pivot strategy even as the Navy preps a major exercise in the Persian Gulf aimed at practicing mine removal. (Iran, in a stand-off with the West, the UN nuclear watchdog, and Israel over its nuclear program, has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in Beijing. The veteran California political figure met today with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to convey the message that the US is not seeking to contain China in the sprawling Asia Pacific region but to "engage" it in new ways.

That's a nice way to put it.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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