In an interview with "60 Minutes" on Wednesday night, President Obama was eager to capitalize on an emerging media narrative: that Mitt Romney had blundered badly with his criticism of the administration's handling of this week's attack on the American Embassy in Egypt.
"Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," Obama insisted. "And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that, that it's important for you to make sure that the statements you make are backed up by the facts, and that you've thought through the ramifications before you make them."
Perhaps President Fact-Based should have toned down the sanctimony. That evening, in an interview with Jose Diaz-Balart, of the Spanish-language network Telemundo, Obama was asked whether Egypt was an ally of the United States. "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama responded.
This comment was so incredible that NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel later commented that he "almost had to sit down" when he heard it. Egypt, the 16th largest nation on Earth and by far the largest in the Arab world, was designated a non-NATO ally by Congress in 1989, along with other important countries like Israel, Japan and Australia. Not at any point during the Arab Spring did the U.S. government hint at any change in that status. And Obama has strenuously resisted the idea, promoted by some Republicans, of canceling the $1.5 billion foreign aid package that the U.S. furnishes to Egypt annually. No wonder jaws dropped when Obama dropped this bombshell in a casual news interview on Spanish-language television.
Was Obama sending a major diplomatic message the day after rioters took over the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday night? As it turns out, no. Obama was just "shooting first and aiming later." Foreign Policy magazine reporter Josh Rogin followed up with the White House and learned that the comment, although clearly not a simple misstatement, was an Obama blunder, not a change in policy.
"I think folks are reading way too much into this," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told Rogin. " 'Ally' is a legal term of art. We don't have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies." The Associated Press later debunked this pedantry by noting the legal designation of Egypt as an ally. Other administration sources told Rogin "that Obama's 'ally' comment was not prearranged or prepared by staff and that the question was not anticipated."
Fire, aim, ready. Amid ongoing riots in Cairo, Obama accidentally disowned Egypt as an ally. The State Department and White House spokesman Jay Carney both had to follow shortly thereafter with embarrassed restatements that Egypt is a U.S. ally.
Fine, everybody makes mistakes. But this one could be consequential. And it takes a lot of brass for Obama, whose incompetence in foreign policy has been amply highlighted by this week's events, to deride his opponent as short on facts.