In the midst of protests at the American embassy in Egypt and violence on the American embassy in Libya that left four people dead, including the American ambassador, Mitt Romney made news of his own. He spoke out about what he described as the Obama administration’s reaction to the crisis, pointing to a release by the American embassy in Egypt. His statements have gotten him into trouble, illustrating the importance of accuracy to effective rhetoric.
Here is the chronology of events. The United States Embassy in Cairo was aware that an offensive YouTube video called “The Innocence of Muslims,” mocking the prophet Muhammad, had been translated into Arabic. It released the following statement, which was later disavowed by the White House because it had not been cleared in advance:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
At that point, no American embassies had been attacked.
Hours after the statement was released, protests began at the American embassy in Egypt, and violence erupted in Libya. Romney distorted this timing, stating:
I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.
Romney has taken a lot of heat from both Republicans and Democrats for this statement, and rightfully so. Here are four reasons why the rhetoric doesn’t work.
1. Get all the facts—and get them right—before making a tough charge.
Romney lost credibility by claiming that the embassy statement was offered in sympathy to those who waged the attacks, when the statement was made before the attacks even took place. In fact, at around the same time that Romney issued his statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made one of her own:
Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.
By pretending that the embassy statement, rather than the strong condemnation by the Secretary of State, was the White House’s official response to the crisis, Romney engaged in a straw-man argument: He distorted his opponent’s position so that he could knock it down more easily. The problem with this tactic is that the chronology here made the straw man obvious. Do not play fast and loose with the facts, because it erodes your credibility, as it did to Romney here.
2. Think before speaking in a crisis.
Romney did himself further damage by speaking while events were unfolding, before having all the facts in place. For example, you can see in his statement that he decries “the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” when, in fact, four people died. He did not know at that time that the ambassador had been killed. He did not know who perpetrated the attacks, what the Obama administration was doing in response, nor had he seen the film that was triggering the outrage.
Romney would have lost nothing if he had waited to make a statement; in fact, by pausing, he could have avoided misstatements that erode credibility. A fully informed statement carries more weight.
3. When you make a mistake, don’t dig that hole deeper.
The morning after his initial blunder, Romney doubled down on his original position, reiterating the condemnation. But he was forced to water down his position, shifting a weaker claim that the release was “akin to an apology,” that “the Embassy of the United States issued what appeared to be an apology for American principles.” His is a strange definition of American principles. The first amendment protects the rights of these mysterious moviemakers to make their film, but it does not give them a constitutional right to be spared the criticism of it. The first amendment also includes a commitment to religious tolerance, the impetus for the embassy’s controversial statement. It is a mistake to take a weak position to defend an error.
4. Consider your tone.
Finally, Romney lost credibility because he took an aggressive tone during a time of national tragedy. Compare his statements to the more somber and measured tones of Condoleezza Rice, President Obama, and Secretary of State Clinton, all mindful of the loss that we have suffered with the death of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and others. A statesmanlike tone is more appropriate for the occasion, and would have given Romney more credibility.