In the long run, what matters is the strategy in the Middle East, not the tactics or the partisanship

In the long run, what matters is the strategy in the Middle East, not the tactics or the partisanship

The immediate responses to the Libya tragedy have been instructive, and have played out on three levels: tactical, political, and strategic.

The Obama administration has been mostly focused on the tactical: moving drones, beefing up diplomatic security, vowing to find the perpetrators, and, as fears of potential mob violence were mounting, tweeting sentiments aimed at defusing a riot. The tactical responses haven’t been flawless, but most of them made sense. The tweets have come in for criticism, not without justification, but I have some sympathy for President Obama’s observation that when a riot might be forming outside one’s office a certain amount of panic is understandable. There will be time afterwards to review the tactics leading up to the tragedy and perhaps we will learn that warnings went unheeded or security went unprovided for. But assuming no such findings, the Obama administration’s tactical response has seemed mostly defensible. There is no corresponding opportunity for tactics from the Romney team since they are not in power.

The Obama campaign, which includes surrogates and supporters in the media/blogosphere, has focused almost entirely on a political response, launching a blistering and relentlessly partisan attack on Governor Romney for his early comments on the crisis. I recognize that in the midst of a campaign, particularly in a week devoted to attacking Romney on national security grounds, one should expect a partisan response, but even so the vehemence of the anti-Romney attacks is quite striking. Now Obama supporters would claim that they are merely responding to Romney’s own critique — and they could point to second-guessing by Republicans as proof that Romney crossed a line — but the Obama campaign’s response is far too unhinged and opportunistic and orchestrated to be blamed entirely on Romney.

Then there is the strategic level, which is asking the bigger questions of whether the Obama administration’s tactical reflex response to the crisis indicated a deeper strategic failure to understand the roots of the problem, whether Obama’s approach in the region is working, whether more active American leadership might have positioned us better, whether the Obama administration was too quick to declare Mission Accomplished in Libya and, in so doing, took its eye off the ball there, and so on. Romney’s response to Libya has been pointed in the direction of raising the discussion to this strategic level. That is ultimately where the debate needs to go and it is certainly a legitimate debate to have.

Now did Romney err in raising such strategic questions at a time when the administration was understandably focused on the tactical level? I suppose one can always second-guess the wording of a statement or rue the timing of lifting an embargo here or there. But to argue that Romney’s critique crossed a line and justified the aggressive political response of Obama partisans — as, to pick just one from dozens of ardent Obama partisans in the media, Dana Milbank, does — requires that you ignore completely the substance of Romney’s critique and focus entirely on the timing and tone, which, of course, is what Milbank and the rest of the campaign does.

There are two inconvenient truths that disrupt this party line. First, and foremost, the Obama administration itself acknowledged that the tweets were worthy of criticism. No, they went beyond that: They criticized the tweets and threw the tweeter under the bus, trying to distance the White House as best they could. We know all of this because FP‘s own intrepid reporter, Josh Rogin, painstakingly reconstructs the events that precipitated the original Romney comment. Rogin is a reliable Romney critic, so his reporting on this particular issue carries extra weight.

Second, the Obama campaign hardly suspended political operations during the 9/11 anniversary and the unfolding tragedy itself. Stephen Hayes provides a revealing tic-toc of the political activities of the Obama campaign laid side-by-side with events of the day. President Obama himself took time off from managing the crisis to show up on CBS to deliver a partisan attack line against Romney. Obama partisans are reduced to arguing that Team Romney shamefully continued campaigning whilst Team Obama nobly continued campaigning during a day of mourning.

Why the relentless partisan response to Romney? Peter Baker and Ashley Parker suggest a possible answer in their New York Times story on the partisan response:

"The debate over his comments drew attention from questions about how Mr. Obama had managed the popular uprisings in the Arab world, the aftermath of the war in Libya and the broader battle against Islamic extremists."

Diverting attention away from the question "what do events in the Middle East tell us about our strategic approach to the region" and toward "what does the timing of Romney’s statement tell us about the horse race" may be an effective way to get reelected, but I don’t think it is an effective way to advance America’s foreign policy interests in the region.