Commentary Magazine


Topic: Cairo embassy attack

Has Romney Erred on Obama Criticism?

Pundits and many in the foreign policy establishment are slamming Mitt Romney today for taking issue with Obama administration statements about attacks on U.S. diplomats and embassies in Libya and Egypt. Their assumption is that in the wake of a tragedy involving the deaths of U.S. personnel, Romney should have held his tongue rather than wading into the controversy and, in the opinion of those critical of his stance, politicizing something that is beyond politics. For some liberals, this will not just reinforce the message of the Democratic National Convention that Romney is not qualified to speak on foreign policy. They hope this will be a turning point in which a close race will turn into a cakewalk for President Obama.

It remains to be seen whether they will turn out to be right. In his statement at the White House this morning, the president sounded and looked presidential when he eulogized Ambassador Chris Stevens and the other Americans. Presidents are at their best when they play commander-in-chief, but the idea that the administration’s mistakes should be treated as out of bounds for Romney is absurd. Contrary to the Democrats’ talking points, President Obama’s foreign policy is a disaster in the making. Though he must be careful, Romney would be a fool to sit by quietly and allow these events to pass without comment, as Islamists rampage in Egypt and Libya while the president snubs Israel and allows Iran to drift toward a nuclear weapon without a serious effort to stop it.

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Pundits and many in the foreign policy establishment are slamming Mitt Romney today for taking issue with Obama administration statements about attacks on U.S. diplomats and embassies in Libya and Egypt. Their assumption is that in the wake of a tragedy involving the deaths of U.S. personnel, Romney should have held his tongue rather than wading into the controversy and, in the opinion of those critical of his stance, politicizing something that is beyond politics. For some liberals, this will not just reinforce the message of the Democratic National Convention that Romney is not qualified to speak on foreign policy. They hope this will be a turning point in which a close race will turn into a cakewalk for President Obama.

It remains to be seen whether they will turn out to be right. In his statement at the White House this morning, the president sounded and looked presidential when he eulogized Ambassador Chris Stevens and the other Americans. Presidents are at their best when they play commander-in-chief, but the idea that the administration’s mistakes should be treated as out of bounds for Romney is absurd. Contrary to the Democrats’ talking points, President Obama’s foreign policy is a disaster in the making. Though he must be careful, Romney would be a fool to sit by quietly and allow these events to pass without comment, as Islamists rampage in Egypt and Libya while the president snubs Israel and allows Iran to drift toward a nuclear weapon without a serious effort to stop it.

It may well be that the initial statement made by Romney last night was issued on the assumption that the shameful apology issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo after, rather than before, the attack on the compound. But the embassy stuck by the statement and thus showed that criticism of the apology was justified. Either way, it still reflected the moral equivalence and willingness to kowtow to Islamist sensibilities and that has been at the core of this administration’s policies in the Middle East.

The willingness of Secretary of State Clinton to condemn a foolish independent film critical of Islam that is supposedly the reason why Americans are being attacked, before speaking of the outrage against U.S. facilities and personnel, was similarly ill-considered and deserved Romney’s riposte. While the president’s statement today was better, Romney still needs to point out that the administration’s desire to appease and conciliate the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt while refusing to meet the prime minister of Israel or to set red lines on Iran is the product of a mindset that has ill served America’s best interests.

Most Americans are inclined to unite around the government and the president in times of crisis. These attacks, coming as they did on 9/11, were acts of war against the United States. The responsibility for responding to such attacks belongs to the president and it is to be hoped that the administration will react in such a manner as to ensure such actions will not be repeated.

But yesterday’s apologies, as well as those that President Obama has issued before this–such as his June 2009 Cairo speech–are part of the problem that set these events in motion. Romney is right that Obama has sent some mixed signals to the world on the defense of American values and has given a measured rather than a knee-jerk bellicose response. If Americans want a better choice on foreign policy, then this is exactly the time for Romney to be speaking up and giving it to them.

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Walking Back the Cairo Apology

The Obama administration is attempting to walk back the damage done by the apology issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for criticisms of Islam made by American citizens. In the wake of condemnations of the embassy’s shocking statement, which seemed to justify the violence that was directed at the United States, administration officials have now said the apology was not vetted by Washington. Responding perhaps to Mitt Romney’s outrage about the apology, last night Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued her own statement in which she also condemned critics of Islam but added, “There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” But with the attacks on posts in both Libya and Cairo now having left four Americans dead and with anti-U.S. rioters acting with impunity, the problem here is bigger than one retracted apology.

But the damage control being performed in Washington isn’t enough to put the administration’s stand in a positive light. If the initial apology resonated around the world it was because it was very much in line with the tone of moral equivalence that was the keynote of President Obama’s speech to the Arab world given in Cairo in June 2009. Having set forth a credo that balanced understanding for grievances against U.S. policies with a desire to conciliate its critics rather than to forthrightly defend America and its allies, the president cannot now be surprised when the instinct of U.S. representatives abroad, and especially those in Cairo, is to apologize first and to be resolute later.

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The Obama administration is attempting to walk back the damage done by the apology issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for criticisms of Islam made by American citizens. In the wake of condemnations of the embassy’s shocking statement, which seemed to justify the violence that was directed at the United States, administration officials have now said the apology was not vetted by Washington. Responding perhaps to Mitt Romney’s outrage about the apology, last night Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued her own statement in which she also condemned critics of Islam but added, “There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” But with the attacks on posts in both Libya and Cairo now having left four Americans dead and with anti-U.S. rioters acting with impunity, the problem here is bigger than one retracted apology.

But the damage control being performed in Washington isn’t enough to put the administration’s stand in a positive light. If the initial apology resonated around the world it was because it was very much in line with the tone of moral equivalence that was the keynote of President Obama’s speech to the Arab world given in Cairo in June 2009. Having set forth a credo that balanced understanding for grievances against U.S. policies with a desire to conciliate its critics rather than to forthrightly defend America and its allies, the president cannot now be surprised when the instinct of U.S. representatives abroad, and especially those in Cairo, is to apologize first and to be resolute later.

It should be noted that the initial reports about the apology which we noted last night were wrong about its timing. The craven U.S. statement that the administration has now disavowed was issued before and not after the attack on the embassy in Cairo where a mob stormed the compound, tore down and burned the U.S. flag and replaced it with an al Qaeda banner. The embassy later did condemn the “unjustified attack” on its property but said it stood by its apology for those Americans who criticized Islam.

That makes it appear a bit less awful, but for the United States to attempt to conciliate Islamists who are intolerant of any criticism of their faith, even by a small group of extremists on the other side of the world, was clearly a fool’s errand. For it to have done so without defending freedom of speech was intolerable.

The makers of the anti-Muslim film that is supposedly the reason for the violence in Egypt and Libya are being widely condemned. The film, which has reportedly been endorsed by the Rev. Terry Jones, who is famous for burning a Koran, is clearly a provocation. Those who engage in rhetoric designed to promote intolerance are wrong. But given the fact that hate against non-Muslim faiths, especially Judaism, is part of mainstream discourse in the Arab and Muslim worlds and especially in Egypt’s government-owned media, there is no reason for the U.S. to apologize for the actions of a small group of American extremists operating on the margins of our society.

The problem with the Obama administration’s attitude toward the Arab world is that a stance of moral equivalence that posed a false symmetry between the Holocaust and Palestinian grievances against Israel or of an Iranian nuclear threat and past complaints about America’s conduct in the Middle East invites the outrages we witnessed yesterday.

The assault on Americans on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks illustrates the deep-seated paranoia and intolerance on the part of Muslims and Arabs. Theirs is a worldview in which their sensibilities must be guarded at all times and places but that those of Americans and Jews can be abused with impunity.

The Egyptian government of President Mohamed Morsi, which did not act to protect the American embassy, has absorbed the lesson of the president’s Cairo speech. The Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates Egypt, reacted to the attack on the embassy with a call for a further U.S. apology. Given that the United States has rewarded Morsi with debt relief and a commitment to continuing U.S. aid with no conditions attached, why shouldn’t they expect the sort of supine behavior from Americans that the embassy’s initial apology illustrated?

The spirit of apology and appeasement that often characterizes the Obama approach to critics of America breeds the sort of contempt for the United States that was demonstrated yesterday. It will take more than a Washington edict ordering the Cairo embassy to delete its craven tweets and press releases to erase the problem that the president’s own statements has created.

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Ambassador Killed, Embassy Attacked: A Time of Testing

If reports are true, Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was one of four diplomats killed yesterday in a rocket strike in Benghazi. This is awful, calamitous, horrible news in a hundred different ways, not only for his family and for the Foreign Service in which he served so honorably, but when it comes to the most fundamental rule of relations between countries from time immemorial—which is that their emissaries are guaranteed safe passage and safe conduct when they travel on behalf of their own governments. We can presume Stevens and his colleagues were not killed by the Libyan government, because if that were the case, this would be nothing less than an act of war that required a response.

As we saw yesterday in Cairo, with the assault on the U.S. embassy there on the pretext of a cinematic offense against the Prophet, the United States has entered a new time of testing in the long war against Islamism—with assaults on official U.S. property and U.S. personnel. Such tests have always been highly problematic for us; before this becomes an occasion to blame Barack Obama’s weakness and vascillation, it’s worth remembering that the United States has never handled it well. In the 1960s, radicals attacking U.S. embassies became a kind of running joke. The joke ended in 1979 with the taking of the hostages in Iran, which was a state action in the guise of a radical private action.

But after yesterday, the test is Obama’s.

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If reports are true, Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was one of four diplomats killed yesterday in a rocket strike in Benghazi. This is awful, calamitous, horrible news in a hundred different ways, not only for his family and for the Foreign Service in which he served so honorably, but when it comes to the most fundamental rule of relations between countries from time immemorial—which is that their emissaries are guaranteed safe passage and safe conduct when they travel on behalf of their own governments. We can presume Stevens and his colleagues were not killed by the Libyan government, because if that were the case, this would be nothing less than an act of war that required a response.

As we saw yesterday in Cairo, with the assault on the U.S. embassy there on the pretext of a cinematic offense against the Prophet, the United States has entered a new time of testing in the long war against Islamism—with assaults on official U.S. property and U.S. personnel. Such tests have always been highly problematic for us; before this becomes an occasion to blame Barack Obama’s weakness and vascillation, it’s worth remembering that the United States has never handled it well. In the 1960s, radicals attacking U.S. embassies became a kind of running joke. The joke ended in 1979 with the taking of the hostages in Iran, which was a state action in the guise of a radical private action.

But after yesterday, the test is Obama’s.

The strange spectacle of the dreadful initial response from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo—apologizing for an offense that the United States did not offer and that under any circumstances would not justify an attack—followed by a White House disavowal six hours later (“we didn’t clear it”) can be ascribed to the initial daze of a two-pronged attack that must have left everyone in shock. That lack of clarity must end today, or there will be more of this. Much more.

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Sound Familiar? Islamists Storm U.S. Embassy and America Apologizes

Is it possible to learn from history? Apparently not if you are an American president determined to win the love of the Islamic world. Over 33 years ago, Islamist rioters stormed an American embassy. U.S. sovereignty was violated and hostages were taken. The immediate response from America, though, was conciliatory–as if those who had insulted the United States could be convinced to think better of their target if those who had just been attacked made enough apologies. The result was the Iran hostage crisis that helped bring down the administration of Jimmy Carter. You might think American diplomats would have learned the lessons of Carter’s Iran debacle but judging by the statement issued today by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, perhaps that chapter of history is no longer considered required reading in the age of Obama.

Today a mob numbering in the hundreds stormed the Cairo embassy on the pretext of being upset about the alleged appearance on YouTube of a film made by Egyptian-American that is derogatory to Islam. The mob scaled the wall of the embassy, entered the courtyard and tore down and burned the U.S. flag that flew over the diplomatic enclave and raised in its place a black Islamic banner that is associated with al-Qaeda. According to the Associated Press, no embassy personnel were hurt since nearly all of them had fled the compound before the mob arrived. Egyptian riot police did not stop the rioters.

In response to this outrage, this is the statement issued by the United States in Egypt:

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. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. 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

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Is it possible to learn from history? Apparently not if you are an American president determined to win the love of the Islamic world. Over 33 years ago, Islamist rioters stormed an American embassy. U.S. sovereignty was violated and hostages were taken. The immediate response from America, though, was conciliatory–as if those who had insulted the United States could be convinced to think better of their target if those who had just been attacked made enough apologies. The result was the Iran hostage crisis that helped bring down the administration of Jimmy Carter. You might think American diplomats would have learned the lessons of Carter’s Iran debacle but judging by the statement issued today by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, perhaps that chapter of history is no longer considered required reading in the age of Obama.

Today a mob numbering in the hundreds stormed the Cairo embassy on the pretext of being upset about the alleged appearance on YouTube of a film made by Egyptian-American that is derogatory to Islam. The mob scaled the wall of the embassy, entered the courtyard and tore down and burned the U.S. flag that flew over the diplomatic enclave and raised in its place a black Islamic banner that is associated with al-Qaeda. According to the Associated Press, no embassy personnel were hurt since nearly all of them had fled the compound before the mob arrived. Egyptian riot police did not stop the rioters.

In response to this outrage, this is the statement issued by the United States in Egypt:

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. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. 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

No mention was made to the invasion of the embassy or the insult to the symbol of the United States that is as dear to Americans than Islam is to Egyptians. Rather than making it clear that this breach of diplomatic immunity and common decency requires the apology of the Egyptian government and the punishment of those responsible, the Obama administration bowed and apologized.

Americans do respect all faiths and religious believers including Islam. But we also respect freedom of speech and that gives the person who made the offending film — a member of the Egyptian Coptic faith that has suffered bitter persecution and violence at the hands of the Muslim majority — the right to say what he likes whether the Egyptians like it or not. More to the point, it is not the business of the State Department, the Cairo Embassy or any American official to apologize for or to in any engage in the controversy over this film, let alone issue a statement that appears to rationalize a violent assault on a U.S. embassy on the 9/11 anniversary.

Ruthie Blum’s new book To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama and the “Arab Spring,” traces the eerie parallels between Carter’s Middle East blunders and those of the current administration as it has failed to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat and the Arab Spring. The fiasco in Cairo is just one more piece of evidence proving her thesis.

It should also be pointed out that Democrats have scoffed at Mitt Romney’s criticism of President Obama’s inveterate apologizing for America and claimed it was an inaccurate Republican calumny of the president. Romney, who has been taking an unjustified beating in the press on foreign and defense policy, should have something to say about this latest instance of Obama’s supine attitude toward America’s foes.

UPDATE: Subsequent developments have made it clear that the timeline for the U.S. embassy apology was not as damning as it first appeared. Further thoughts on why the problem here is bigger than one ill-considered apology can be found here.

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