For Republican Mitt Romney, it must have seemed a clear shot: A mob storming the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and a limp embassy statement apologizing for an anti-Islam YouTube film produced in the United States.

"The Embassy of the United States," the statement said, "condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims - as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

Romney quickly put out a news release highlighting the misplaced emphasis on Muslim feelings, but it was badly worded, and he would have been better advised to wait. He had a valid point to make, but in his haste he unwittingly triggered a media bonfire.

It's not hard to understand why the embassy statement cried out for a retort.

President Barack Obama began his administration with what many have dubbed an "apology" tour, including a speech in Cairo in which he sought to ingratiate himself with the Muslim world and contrast his administration with that of George W. Bush.

And few could forget Obama's creepy habit of bowing to various foreign leaders, or his inability to articulate the concept of American exceptionalism. Or his administration's laughable attempt to rebrand war as "overseas contingency operations" and terrorist attacks as "man-caused disasters."

The Obama administration was and is vulnerable to accusations of insufficient vigor in defending U.S. interests and values, and Obama's "lead from behind" approach has arguably contributed to the spectacle of a Middle East in flames.

But Romney's initial statement was marred. Its key passage said the Obama administration's "first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."

That made it sound as if he was accusing the administration of sympathizing not only with the attackers in Cairo but those in Libya, where a coordinated assault by terrorists resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. personnel.

Yet in his statement the next day, Romney made it clear that his "sympathize" remark had applied only to Cairo. The administration, he said, "was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions."

Many in the media worked themselves into a how-dare-you-lather, arguing that Romney had been too hasty (agreed), and claiming the Cairo statement wasn't fair game (absurd).

It turns out that administration officials in Washington also saw the Cairo release as appalling.

Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy magazine reported that the embassy official who put out the "feelings of Muslims" statement first sent it to Washington and was told not to release it without revisions.

It went out anyway, angering top people at the White House and State Department, according to Rogin. Rogin's source told him officials in Washington found the statement "tone deaf." That's putting it mildly, which explains why it was later disavowed.

A subsequent statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "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."

In other words, she put in what Romney said the Cairo statement had left out.

Romney was also assailed for "conflating" the embassy statement with administration policy, which strikes me as weird. How was he to know the Cairo official was a loose cannon? Don't U.S. embassies represent the U.S. government?

And yet, had Romney waited a few hours he might have avoided a good bit of this muddle, leaving his main point clear.

As is evident from this - as well as the antagonistic coverage of his foreign trip during the summer - Romney is facing an extremely hostile press, and he will have to learn to manage that problem more adroitly.

E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Email:


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