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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Related on HuffPost:
President Barack Obama
"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives. I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants. On a personal note, Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States. Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi. As Ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya's transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice. I am profoundly grateful for his service to my Administration, and deeply saddened by this loss. The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe. As we stand united with their families, let us now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward."
"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," the statement read. "The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached, protesters were inside the grounds," said Romney at his press conference. "They reiterated that statement after the breach. I think it's a -- a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values. That instead, when our grounds are being attacked, and being breached, that the first response to the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America's values is never the right course." The embassy's statement, however, came before the protests -- not after, as Romney claimed. The embassy did subsequently tweet that it stood by its condemnation of the video, but it also condemned the attacks. When reporters pointed out that the White House disavowed the Cairo embassy's statement, Romney said he agreed with that response. He still said, however, that the embassy was part of Obama's administration, and therefore the president was ultimately responsible. "It's their administration," said Romney. "Their administration spoke. The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come his mouth but also from the words of his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department. They clearly sent mixed messages to the world, and the statement that came from the administration, and the embassy is the administration."
Secretary Of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
"It is with profound sadness that I share the news of the death of four American personnel in Benghazi, Libya, yesterday. Among them were United States Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. We are still making next of kin notifications for the other two individuals. Our hearts go out to all their families and colleagues. A 21-year veteran of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Stevens died last night from injuries he sustained in the attack on our office in Benghazi. I had the privilege of swearing in Chris for his post in Libya only a few months ago. He spoke eloquently about his passion for service, for diplomacy and for the Libyan people. This assignment was only the latest in his more than two decades of dedication to advancing closer ties with the people of the Middle East and North Africa, which began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. As the conflict in Libya unfolded, Chris was one of the first Americans on the ground in Benghazi. He risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation. He spent every day since helping to finish the work that he started. Chris was committed to advancing America's values and interests, even when that meant putting himself in danger. Sean Smith was a husband and a father of two, who joined the Department ten years ago. Like Chris, Sean was one of our best. Prior to arriving in Benghazi, he served in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal and most recently The Hague. All the Americans we lost in yesterday's attacks made the ultimate sacrifice. We condemn this vicious and violent attack that took their lives, which they had committed to helping the Libyan people reach for a better future. America's diplomats and development experts stand on the front lines every day for our country. We are honored by the service of each and every one of them."
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.)
"Less than 24 hours after our nation remembered the heinous attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans find their sovereign soil attacked again as more American lives are lost at the hands of intolerant, barbaric, radical Muslims. United States Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Smith, and several embassy staff were murdered late yesterday when suspected religious extremists stormed the United States Consulate in Benghazi. This morning, my condolences and prayers go out to the families of the victims. Americans need to question whether the deaths of these innocent patriots could have been avoided. The Obama Administration touted the Arab Spring as an awakening of freedom, which we now see is a nightmare of Islamism. Even more concerning, is the initial response to these attacks last night from the embassy officials of the Obama Administration was to apologize for a Facebook video that supposedly hurt Muslim feelings. President Obama's policy of appeasement towards the Islamic world has manifested itself into a specter of unconscionable hatred. How anyone can believe this President is strong on national security and foreign policy is beyond my comprehension. President Obama has clearly surpassed former President Jimmy Carter and his actions during the Iranian Embassy crisis, as the weakest and most ineffective person to ever occupy the White House."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
"We learned yesterday, and are receiving reports this morning, of the attacks against the United States Embassy in Cairo and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. "In Benghazi our Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in service to our nation. Our thoughts and sympathy today are with the families of these brave Americans. "These attacks remind us of the sacrifices made on a daily basis by foreign service officers, diplomatic security personnel, and our Marine Security Guards. "I join my colleagues in strongly condemning the murder of these innocent Americans. And I support employing every available tool at our disposal to ensure the safety of Americans overseas and to hunt down those responsible for these attacks. "Yesterday we commemorated the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, and today we are reminded that brave Americans serve us every day at the risk of their own lives. We honor the Americans we lost in Libya, and we will stand united in our response. "Among the things we can all agree on in Washington is that attacks on the U.S. and its representatives will be met with resolve, and that America's presence and defense of our national interests across the globe will not be deterred by the acts of violent extremists."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
"I was deeply disturbed and saddened to learn of the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. I join President Obama in condemning these senseless acts of violence. And my thoughts are with the families of those who were killed in this horrific attack. "It is too often forgotten that American diplomats risk their lives on a daily basis. Our diplomatic corps is filled with admirable and dedicated public servants. And the four Americans who lost their lives yesterday exemplified the courage and sacrifice that happens every day at diplomatic posts across the globe. "I have traveled to many of America's embassies abroad, and I have always been impressed by and grateful for the leadership and commitment of America's ambassadors and State Department personnel. Ambassador Stevens was a career Foreign Service officer and a former Peace Corps volunteer, who spent his life giving of his time and his talents to promote democracy and American values. "I support President Obama's directive to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the world, and to provide whatever resources necessary to keep our personnel in Libya safe. And I will continue to the monitor the situation as we learn more about these terrible events."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)
"I join with President Obama and other Americans in condemning these horrible acts against our public servants, and offer my deepest condolences to the families that lost loved ones. "At at a time when we should be standing together against these senseless acts of violence, Mitt Romney offered an atrocious political response that undermines our unity in the face of threats to Americans around the world."
"This senseless attack on our consulate in Libya is contemptible. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those whose lives were lost. Right now, we should all honor the courage, dedication, and sacrifice of Ambassador Chris Stevens and the other Americans who gave their lives in the service of our country."
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today released the following joint statement regarding the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya yesterday. "We are anguished and outraged by the death of four citizens of the United States, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, during an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families. "Chris was one of America's finest and bravest diplomats, and also someone we considered a friend. In the midst of last year's uprising in Libya, Chris traveled at great personal risk to Benghazi to represent the country he loved as the U.S. envoy to the Libyan opposition. He advanced American interests and values in Libya and stood with the Libyan people throughout their struggle for freedom and during the challenging times that followed. His death at the hands of extremists is a tragic and awful loss for the people of both the United States and Libya. "There is still much we do not know about what happened in Benghazi yesterday. What is clear, however, is that the attackers must be apprehended and punished. We appreciate that senior Libyan leaders have condemned these cowardly attacks, and we now look to the Libyan government to ensure that the perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice, and that U.S. diplomats are protected. We have confidence that our own government will provide all necessary assistance to this end. "Yesterday's attack is a tragic and terrible reminder that - despite the hopes of the Arab Spring - the forces of violent extremism in the Middle East are far from defeated, and that the revolutions inspired by millions of people who dream of freedom and democracy can still be hijacked by small groups of violent extremists who are eager to kill to advance their evil ideology. "Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken. We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists. "To follow this misguided path would not only be a victory for the extremists and their associates, but a betrayal of everything for which Chris Stevens and his colleagues stood and gave their lives. In short, it would be a betrayal of our own best ideals as Americans and our own enduring interest in using our great influence to support the overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East who want to be free from the kinds of murderers and terrorists who killed our people yesterday in Benghazi."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
Richard Burr (R-N.C.)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Congressman Joe Baca
Rep. Keith Ellison
Senator Roy Blunt
Speaker John Boehner
Michael Burgess, MD
U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar
Rep. Adam Smith
"I join President Obama, Secretary Clinton and my colleagues in the Senate in strongly condemning the horrific attack targeting American U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. "My heart goes out to the families of Ambassador Stevens and the other brave Americans who were killed in this senseless act of violence. They were committed public servants who courageously risked theirlives supporting the Libyan people and political transition. The service ofthese brave Americans epitomizes the best of our values, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten."
Senator John Boozman
Rep. Pete King