Associate editor

To a certain extent, no one should be surprised by Mitt Romney’s decision to seize on — actually, make that exploit — the attack on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Egypt and Libya as ammunition in the presidential campaign.

After all, the Republican presidential nominee wrote a book in 2010 premised on, and titled with, the false notion that Barack Obama has been going around the world apologizing for America.

“There are anti-American fires burning all across the globe; President Obama’s words are like kindling to them,” Romney wrote in “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”

Romney repeated this falsehood in his acceptance speech in Tampa, claiming that Obama launched his presidency “with an apology tour.”

Oddly enough, Romney’s evidence for Obama’s alleged apologizing is bereft of certain words — like apology, or sorry, or regret. To Romney, apologizing means never actually having to say you’re sorry.

In the speeches that Romney criticized, Obama concedes imperfections and even mistakes in American behavior, but he couples those acknowledgments with critiques of other nations as well.

Thus, in his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama referred to the “tumultuous history” between the United States and Iran, noting that “in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Then he immediately pivoted to Iran’s “role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.”

This is more factual recitation of history than craven slobbering, yet to Romney it is part of “the steady stream of criticisms, put-downs and jabs directed at the nation he was elected to represent and defend.”

So when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo released a statement condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,” Romney was predisposed to see it through the distorted, if politically convenient, lens of apology.

Facts be damned. The embassy statement was issued Tuesday morning, before the protests started, not to mention before the embassy walls were breached, not to mention before there was a murderous assault on U.S. diplomats in Libya. On Tuesday night, Romney issued his statement describing the administration’s behavior as “disgraceful” and charging that its “first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

By that point, the Cairo embassy, the State Department spokesman and the secretary of State had all condemned the attacks. “Let me be clear,” Hillary Clinton’s statement said. “There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

As irresponsible as Romney’s behavior Tuesday night, even worse was his move to double down at a Wednesday morning news conference, following word of the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other American diplomats in Libya. Tuesday night, before the killings were known, was amateurish. Wednesday morning was unconscionable.

“It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values,” Romney said, apparently believing that the embassy should have been able to foretell the attack before it occurred. In the space of three sentences, he criticized the administration for standing by the embassy statement and accused it of sending “mixed signals” by disavowing it.

The question and answer session was even worse. “Simply put, having an embassy which . . . has been breached and has protesters on its grounds, having violated the sovereignty of the United States, having that embassy reiterate a statement effectively apologizing for the right of free speech is not the right course for an administration,” Romney said.

Leaving aside his flawed timeline — later tweets from the embassy combined criticism of anti-Muslim bigotry with condemnation of the attacks — Romney’s interpretation of what constitutes an apology is once again far off-base.

“We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the original embassy statement said. This formulation reflects a sensitive balancing of competing interests, not an apology for free speech. You can deplore the idiocy of the movie but defend to the death the producer’s right to make it.

To Romney, this amounts to “a disgraceful statement on the part of our administration to apologize for American values.”

There is something disgraceful happening here, but it doesn’t involve a comment by an obscure embassy spokesman. It is Romney’s cynical, dishonest effort to take advantage of this national tragedy for his own political ends.