In 2006, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of satiric editorial cartoons that lampooned the prophet Muhammed, touching off demonstrations across the Islamic world.
The response from the Bush administration was captured for posterity by The New York Times:
The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, reading the government's statement on the controversy, said, ''Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images,'' which are routinely published in the Arab press, ''as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.''
Still, the United States defended the right of the Danish and French newspapers to publish the cartoons. ''We vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view,'' Mr. McCormack added.
For the Bush administration, talking about the uproar represented a delicate balancing act. A central tenet of the administration's foreign policy is the promotion of democracy and human rights, including free speech, in countries where they are lacking. But a core mission of its public diplomacy is to emphasize respect for Islam in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yesterday, outrage over a similar satiric depiction of Muhammed -- in this case, a video produced by some previously unheralded amateur filmmaker -- brought a protest to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. The embassy, with knowledge that the protest was impending, opted to send most of its staff home, leaving behind a skeleton crew of officials who, prior to the demonstration, put out the following statement:
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.
I suppose that if you want to parse the differences between the two statements, it's arguable that what the embassy statement lacked was the "vigorous" defense of free expression offered by McCormack. I'd attribute that difference in perspective to McCormack having the luxury to speak from a safe perch at the State Department, as opposed to a nearly empty embassy in a foreign country facing an impending demonstration. Still, it seems clear that what the embassy officials were attempting, however ham-handedly, was to get the same "balancing act" right -- to assert the right to be offended while calling for calm. (As Jeffrey Goldberg points out, whatever the embassy's response may have been, it's both "ridiculous to blame Obama for them" and inane not to acknowledge that the Obama administration has "spent the past three years killing Islamist terrorists.")
But the outrage over the amateur filmmaker's video spread to Libya. There, according to reports, the protests were exploited as a diversionary tactic to facilitate an already-planned attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As we know this morning, those attacks claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three members of his staff.
Enter Mitt Romney, who saw an opportunity of his own to pitch political hay over this press release. The Romney campaign crafted a complicated response, which was initially embargoed until September 11th -- declared a sort of 'no cheap shot' zone -- had passed. The embargo did not hold, and late last night Romney's statement trickled out:
I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. 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.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus backed Romney up in a tweet that read:
Where does Romney get "sympathize with those who waged the attacks" from? It's the press release from the U.S. embassy in Egypt -- and that press release alone -- that forms the basis of the Romney's assertion that the Obama administration sympathizes with violent fanatics. That's a pretty tricky hang, considering the fact that the Obama administration's official stance on that press release is this: "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government." That the White House had disavowed the embassy's statement was publicly known before Romney and Priebus got into this silly political game.
Of course, what wasn't publicly known was that the overnight attacks had claimed the lives of Stevens and his colleagues -- a fact that's clear in Romney's reference to "the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi." One thing that is explicitly known: No American official has "sympathized" with any "attacker" of any kind. That should be manifestly obvious to everybody: The embassy's press release that forms the basis of the Romney/Priebus criticism preceded any "attacks." (Let's reiterate: The press release by the embassy in Cairo preceded the Egyptian demonstrations as well.)
These basic truths now have the Romney campaign in a bit of a bind, since the press that's been reporting on the story -- and knows the order in which events transpired -- are hammering him for his response. Peter Hamby reports that the Romney camp is already trying to get his Republican allies to circle the wagons, disseminating talking points to back up his weird response. The problem is that outside Romney's circle, the response from Republicans has not been kind. Even those who seem to agree that the Egypt embassy's statement constituted de facto "sympathy" with terrorists believe that Romney's timing was inept.
Speaking on Fox today, Peggy Noonan says, "The U.S. Embassy in Egypt's statement ... after the crowds got out of control there, seemed to me to sound weak and frightened. But it really must have been a frightening moment for a lot of people. I really don't know what the higher meaning there is."
"I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours, perhaps since last night," she said, adding, "Cool words, or no words, is the way to go" when "hot things happen."
At any rate, I'm not entirely sure what lesson Romney and Priebus have extracted from these sad developments, but for the moment, it seems to be that a Romney White House would insist on vetting any and all press releases from any and all of the United States' foreign embassies. And Romney would insist on a high level of pre-cognition on top of that.
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