Families are in mourning, and the diplomatic corps is dealing with the tragedy of four Americans being killed in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But with 55 days until the election, everything becomes grist for the political mill, and the violence against the U.S. missions in Libya and Cairo, Egypt is no exception.
President Obama will face questions about the Arab Spring; some in the foreign policy community, believing stability in the Middle East a more vital interest than freedom for its citizens, have questioned the Obama administration’s support for the “Arab Spring.” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a brutal dictator, but he was a U.S. ally.
Opponents of the president will almost certainly call into question the wisdom of encouraging those demonstrating in the Arab street — because better organized than the idealistic youth in Egypt were Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Romney said in July ”The Arab Spring is not appropriately named. It has become a development of more concern and it occurred in part because of the reluctance on the part of various dictators to provide more freedom to their citizens. President Bush urged Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the Freedom Agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner.”
The Romney campaign has already started accusing the president of being derelict in his leadership surrounding these incidents. Romney campaign senior foreign policy adviser Rich Williamson is quoted this morning assailing the president to Foreign Policy Magazine’s Josh Rogin, in an interview that occurred “before it was known that four Americans died in the armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi”
“The events in Egypt and Libya show the failure of the Egyptian and Libyan governments to uphold their obligations to keep our diplomatic missions safe and secure and the regard in which the United States is held under President Obama in these two countries,” Williamson said. “It’s all part of a broader scheme of the president’s failure to be an effective leader for U.S. interests in the Middle East.”
But GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will likely face questions of his own today, not only about his foreign policy views (Romney had at least five different positions on Libya as of last October) but about his statesmanship.
Before news spread that four Americans had been killed in Benghazi, Romney yesterday issued a statement saying in part: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
This is an attack that does not stand up to simple chronology.
Asked what Romney was referring to, his campaign Tuesday pointed to a statement from the US Embassy in Cairo issued a statement “condemn(ing) the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” — referring to the anti-Muslim movie allegedly inflaming the demonstrators, rioters, and attackers — but that statement was issued before the attacks on the diplomatic missions.
Romney was not the only one who took issue with the statement, which was criticized for “redefin(ing) and limit(ing) freedom of speech to that speech which others, and, explicitly Muslims, do not find offensive,” in the words of Nina Shea of Freedom House.
The White House also seemed to take issue with it. Tuesday night An Obama administration official ABC News that “no one in Washington approved that statement before it was released and it doesn’t reflect the views of the U.S. government.”
Also Tuesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying, “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. 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. ”
Facing criticism for the rhetorical attack on the Obama administration — literally before the dust had settled and by their own initial explanation based on an inaccurate timeline — Romney and his campaign on Wednesday updated their explanation, pointing to tweets by someone at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo standing by the original statement even after demonstrators had breached the compound.
“The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached,” Romney said. “Protesters were inside the grounds. They reiterated that statement after the breach.”
Romney, according to aides, was referring to a tweet from the official U.S. Embassy in Cairo twitter account — one which has since been deleted — stating “This morning’s condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo (@USEmbassyCairo) also wrote: “Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we’re the ones actually living through this.” And it stood by its previous statement, tweeting “Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.”
Romney’s opponents are questioning the propriety of the attack. After it was known that at least one American had been killed in Libya, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt last night said “We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack.”
Romney wasn’t the only one — Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus tweeted ”Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”
The evidence that the president “sympathizes with attackers in Egypt” was not immediately apparent, likely because it does not in any way exist.
A Republican National Committee official later expressed amazement that the press was letting the White House off the hook by not asking why they let the U.S. Embassy-Cairo statement represent American policy for hours, not distancing itself from the statement until last night, not weighing in until Secretary Clinton’s post-10 pm ET statement.
William Kristol, publisher of The Weekly Standard, Wednesday wrote that one “can question the timing and tone of Mitt Romney’s statement last night. One can note he wasn’t as fluent and clear as he might have been at his press conference this morning. Still, the fact remains that the events of September 11, 2012, represent a big moment for the country. Romney is right to sense this, and to seize on this moment as an occasion to explain the difference between his foreign policy and President Obama’s. He’s right to reject the counsel of the mainstream media, which is to keep quiet and give President Obama a pass.”
Kristol said that the GOP nominee “deserves credit for emphasizing today that the events in Cairo and Benghazi remind us of the need for American leadership. ”
*This posted has been updated with new comments from Romney and his campaign, as well as other context.