Behind Mitt Romney’s Libya statement


Mitt Romney makes remarks on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. (JIM YOUNG/REUTERS)

“Trust, but verify.”

Mitt Romney would have done well to channel Ronald Reagan’s famous line before making his statement Tuesday night about the events in the Middle East. By criticizing the Obama Administration without full information, getting political while other Republicans were issuing more somber remarks, and doubling down on his response despite the revelation that a U.S. ambassador was killed, Mitt Romney made a rush to judgment.

As many have pointed out about Romney, jumping the gun—or having “a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” as President Obama told 60 Minutes—may not be a very presidential quality. But there’s another interesting leadership question developing about how the decision to issue the statement was made, and what role Romney’s advisers played. Is the candidate reliant on their recommendations when he senses a political opportunity? Or was it Romney who was leading the charge?

In his account for the Washington Post, Philip Rucker writes that “by about 8 p.m. Eastern time [Tuesday], when Romney aides heard about the first U.S. casualty in Libya, they recommended to the candidate that he issue a statement,” quoting a senior campaign official who was granted anonymity. “We were all in agreement that it was appropriate for the governor to say something, and we were all in agreement in terms of what he should say,” the official said.

Then, Rucker reports, aides orchestrated a formal-looking news conference setting at what was intended to be a campaign rally for Romney to double down on his remarks from the night before. The narrative that seems to emerge from Rucker’s story, at least, is not that Romney felt overly compelled to make a statement at a time of crisis, but that his aides seized a political opportunity.

Meanwhile, in the New York Times, a picture emerges of Romney reacting “strongly to the notion of ‘hurt’ religious feelings” from the embassy statement made before the protests occurred, and that he saw a chance to draw a sharp line between himself and the president. It also says he personally read and approved the campaign’s statement before it was released. Some saw the article as a sign Romney’s aides were pointing their fingers at their boss.

Who knows how much Romney asked his aides about the source or timing of the original statement that prompted his remarks. It’s unclear whose idea the hastily arranged news conference was. And if it was Romney who pushed to make the statement and approved its content, it’s hard to tell whether anyone advised him otherwise. 

In either case, political opportunity, rather than presidential protocol, appears to have driven the decision. As Chris Cillizza quoted Republican strategist John Weaver saying: “they allow tactics to dictate strategy, instead of vice versa.” When it comes to leadership, however, neither tactics nor strategy should ever come before judgment—of a candidate or his advisers.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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