No Gipper smoothness here

WASHINGTON — Once upon a time there was a silver-tongued president. His foreign policy must have been seen by enemies of the United States as weak and feckless, because these enemies became emboldened. Mideast terrorists staged a brutal, bloody attack in which innocent Americans were killed. The president’s response could be seen as a display of shameful weakness rather than steely resolve.

I’m referring, of course, to Ronald Reagan and the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, which claimed 241 American lives — and led Reagan to withdraw U.S. forces from Lebanon.

It’s useful to keep this antecedent in mind as opportunistic critics embarrass themselves looking for ways to bash President Obama over the spreading anti-U.S. violence in Egypt, Libya and now Yemen.

I mean Mitt Romney. Really. U.S. diplomatic posts are attacked abroad, and his first reaction is to issue a statement blasting the president? J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, and three other officials are killed in a commando-style assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, and his instinct is to seek not safety for other Americans at risk, not justice for the coldblooded killers, but political advantage for himself?

Romney’s rushed statement Tuesday night calling the Obama administration’s response to the violence “disgraceful” was a low in a campaign already scraping bottom. Romney’s subsequent decision to double down on the attack, even as Americans mourned the first killing of an ambassador since 1979 and officials began investigating what now looks like a well-planned terrorist attack … well, I guess this whole performance says a lot about what kind of man Romney is.

The most charitable explanation is that he’s in a panic over polls that show Obama opening a lead. If this is not the case, then Romney’s ignorance of foreign policy is more profound — and potentially dangerous — than anyone could have suspected.

It’s one thing to pander on domestic issues. When Romney takes every conceivable position on health care reform, when he promises tax cuts for all and sacrifice for none, when he conjures millions of jobs out of thin air — such reckless promises are written off as campaign rhetoric.

But international affairs are different. There is general consensus that at times of crisis, the United States must speak with one voice. Most Republicans, even some of Obama’s most adamant foes, respected this tradition. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, issued measured statements recognizing that this is a moment for patriotism, not politics.

More important is the fact that words spoken in the heat of international crisis can have life-or-death impact. Romney’s ostensible complaint was that Obama should have spoken up more clearly for American values — presumably, in this case, freedom of speech.

Indeed, the administration has made clear that of course it supports the right of anti-Muslim extremists to make and disseminate an amateurish video whose sole purpose is to insult and enrage believers in Islam. This is protected speech under the Constitution. But imagine the reaction if Obama’s first response had been not to try to quell the violence but to align the U.S. government with a piece of inflammatory garbage produced by twisted zealots. Religious tolerance is an American value, too.

Romney’s tin ear was mildly amusing when he crashed and clattered his way through a foreign trip. As Obama joked in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, it’s pretty bad “if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

But Romney’s tougher-than-thou bluster about the Middle East is no laughing matter, especially his attempt to appear to be more supportive of Israel than Obama. Since Obama has been as supportive of Israel as any president, Romney has contorted himself into dangerous positions, practically threatening an attack on Iran’s nuclear program and saying he “can’t imagine” any circumstance in which he would be unable to meet with an Israeli prime minister.

Romney’s belief, apparently, is that such language sounds tough — that the harder he thumps his chest, the stronger he seems. You have to wonder if he could ever summon the prudence and wisdom to pull back, as Reagan did, when circumstances indicate. You have to wonder if he realizes that his shoot-from-the-lip attacks, far from projecting strength, sound frantic and weak.

You have to wonder if he knows there are moments when the guiding principle has to be “America first.” Not “me first.”

Email eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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