Romney’s Criticism of Embassy Statement Misfires

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.

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2 Responses to Romney’s Criticism of Embassy Statement Misfires

  1. Michael L. Oddenino says:

    Tongue Tied America (TTA) provides a valuable service in highlighting valuable oratorical skills and techniques that can serve lawyers in representing clients. As a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law I am most pleased to know that the principles of good oratory are being taught to law students at the University of Virginia.

    TTA’s criticism of Romney’s remarks on the Cairo embassy statement falls far short of helpful oratorical advice and rests firmly in the category of a political attack piece. As any trial lawyer knows, the credibility of a witness is critical. If TTA were subject to cross-examination on the Romney piece, it would undoubtedly be revealed that the TTA authors are pro-Obama and anti-Romney which would immediately cause TTA’s credibility to plummet as to its criticism of Romney’s oratorical merits.

    Romney’s remarks followed the deplorable attacks on the U.S. missions in Libya and the attacks on the embassy in Cairo as well as the release by the Cairo embassy, unquestionably a part of the Obama Administration, which release was the only comment from an Administration source for many hours after the attacks. Romney could be rightly criticized for assuming that the Cairo release was in response to the attacks as most Americans assumed, but TTA, absent any declared evidence, accuses Romney of knowing the exact timing of the Cairo release and thus of creating a straw-man argument:

    “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.”

    What evidence does TTA have that Romney knew of the timing of the release prior to issuing his statement? None is provided by TTA. On cross-examintion, absent such evidence, the previously established bias of TTA would be strongly reinforced thereby diminishing the reliability of TTA’s arguments in general.

    TTA further criticizes Romney for not knowing the full magnitude of the tragedy prior to issuing his statement:

    “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.”

    This argument is itself a strawman argument by taking issue with Romney for not knowing the full-scale of the events when he made his statement. So what? It was known that U.S. missions were attacked and it was known of at least one U.S. death. To suggest that because the tragedy was later revealed to be much worse somehow undermines Romney’s comments at the time he made them is further evidence of TTA bias rather than a legitimate criticism of oratory.

    Employing the TTA notion of timing, no one would ever be able to comment on any event since rarely are all the facts known until much later, sometimes years later. TTA is essentially criticizing Romney for denouncing attacks on American interests because the attacks were worse than what Romney knew at the time of his statement. Does TTA not appreciate that the later revelations of increased severity only serve to buttress Romney’s point?

    TTA criticizes Romney for not knowing who perpetrated the attacks. Please. Is TTA so obtuse to geopolitical reality that TTA is comfortable lobbing such a criticism when American interests are attacked in Muslim countries on the anniversary of 9/11? The specific identity of the attackers is irrelevant to the point Romney was making anyway. TTA’s political bias is revealed rather than any helpful tips on oratory.

    TTA criticizes Romney for not knowing what the Obama administration was doing in response to the attacks. Hello. The only statement from the Obama administration was the Cairo release which appeared to most everyone to be in response to the attacks. The timing of the Cairo release should have impelled the Obama administration to quickly distance itself from the Cairo release, which it did only much later, and to issue a denunciation of the attacks.

    Can TTA point to any action of the Obama administration prior to Romney’s statement that would have informed all Americans much less Romney as to what the Obama administration was doing? TTA gives the Obama administration a complete pass for taking no action, for no timely response, yet criticizes Romney because the Obama administration had not informed anyone. Any jury would recognize the TTA political bias as undermining, if not polluting its oratorical advice.

    TTA posits as fact that a “film . . . was triggering the outrage.” TTA is guilty of gullibly swallowing the Obama administration political line even though overwhelming evidence is piling up demonstrating that the film was a pretext and not the triggering event. TTA is guilty of “playing fast and loose with the facts” and thus eroding its credibility. And even if TTA weren’t so glaringly wrong on this point, what benefit would viewing the film have provided Romney as to the points he was making? None. TTA reveals a desperate attempt to shield the Obama administration by making strawman arguments against Romney. TTA should follow its own advice: “A fully informed statement carries more weight.”

    TTA doubles down on its political attack by suggesting that somehow Romney erred in defending his original statement:

    “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.”

    Exactly what is TTA saying is the oratorical error? What dispassionate reader does not find the Cairo release to be “akin to an apology” for the U.S. Constitutional right to freedom of speech? What is TTA’s characterization of the Cairo release if not an apology? TTA is not offering oratorical advice but rather it is making political commentary against a candidate TTA opposes and in favor of the other candidate.

    TTA muddles constitutional 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.”

    TTA employs “mysterious” as an adjective to moviemakers in a blatant attempt to denigrate the producers of the film that TTA wrongly ascribes as being the triggering event of the attacks. TTA further compounds its errors by suggesting that Romney somehow is conflating a constitutional right to free speech with a TTA manufactured strawman of being spared criticism of a right to free speech or, in this case, the strawman film.

    The Cairo release as to religious tolerance ignores principles of free speech in America, the right to freedom of speech includes speech that may be offensive speech to some. TTA ignores that principle while continuing its attack on Romney by further repeating TTA’s arguments that some film is what triggered the attacks. TTA would do well to follow its own advice: “It is a mistake to take a weak position to defend an error.”

    TTA attempts to cloak its political commentary in the clothing of being concerned about Romney gaining more credibility:

    “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.”

    TTA only underscores the political nature of this entire piece and goes so far as to insert their candidate into a list of supposed statesmen that fared better than Romney. Where are the helpful examples with commentary on context, timing and word choice that would actually have demonstrated an oratorical concern over the obvious political? It is not there because in this instance TTA became unmoored from their goal of improving oratory while falling prey to attempting to make cheap political points for their candidate.

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