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.
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.
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.
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