It’s obvious Mitt Romney wants badly to change the tenor of the presidential race, in which he has struggled for months to find a way to push ahead of President Obama. It became clear just how badly the Republican presidential candidate will reach for a game-changing moment when late Tuesday, and again Wednesday, he effectively issued a full-throated defense of the Free Speech rights of that hate-mongering Florida pastor, Terry Jones.
Romney might not have mentioned Jones’ name but that was the gist of his statements, with the candidate — in a fanciful contortion of fact and logic — accusing President Obama of being more sympathetic with Muslim protesters than with the American diplomats they attacked in Cairo and Benghazi, Libya. The president had been, Romney declared, so “disgraceful” as to “apologize for American values.”
Romney reached this ungenerous conclusion by rendering himself ignorant of some important facts: The “apology” he referred to came from well down the diplomatic food chain; it was issued before the breaching of the embassy walls in Cairo, and it was not an apology but a call for an end to inflammatory discourse.
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The American Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday issued its statement in response to a provocative anti-Islamic video. The diplomatic dispatch condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
That statement was in response to a 14-minute trailer for a longer video that belittles Islam and paints the prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, child molester and a fop. And that was just for starters. Jones, the pastor who previously helped provoke murderous riots in Afghanistan when he threatened to burn copies of the Koran, promoted the new video as a satirical look at the life of Muhammad. Jones apparently thought the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks would be a nifty time to engage in a bit of slum-bucket identity commerce.
No one would revoke the right of any American, even the twisted pastor and his lame-brained video pals, to hawk commentary on just about any subject. They are perfectly within their rights to promote stupidity and provoke anger. The 1st Amendment doesn’t usually need to be invoked for those who act sensibly. But no one, in the same regard, should dispute the right of representatives of the U.S. to remind the world that Jones & Co.’s hateful views are not shared by the government or most of the American people.
That’s all the U.S. Embassy in Cairo did Tuesday, before the attacks erupted there and in Libya, where a mob killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.
Blake Hounshell, managing editor of nonpartisan Foreign Policy magazine, said it “smacked of desperation” for Romney to try to fit the embassy’s cautionary note into a long-running Republican narrative about the weakness of Democrats in foreign affairs.
Hounshell said the embassy statement might not have been the most artful. “But anyone who knows how diplomacy works knows that Barack Obama is not editing statements by junior foreign service officers in Cairo,” Hounshell said in an interview. “And, even if the language was imperfect, it was not an apology.
“But the narrative for Republicansfor a long time has been that Obama apologizes for America and that Democrats are unpatriotic.”
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Sensing opportunity after the overseas attacks became public late Tuesday, the Republican campaign released a statement on behalf of Romney: “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.”
Close observers of the Muslim world don’t doubt that there are at least some Americans who will welcome any criticism of Obama’s policies. The U.S. supported democracy movements in the region and the thanks it got was, well, democracy, which in many of the emerging governments means a disturbingly large role for Muslim fundamentalists.
Journalist Ashraf Khalil called the symbolism of the attacks on the Americans “terrible.” “After all, it was the U.S. and NATO that literally saved Benghazi hours before it would have been overrun by Kadafi’s army,” Khalil, a former Los Angeles Times colleague, said in an email from Cairo. “For those same people (even a tiny contingent of them) to kill a U.S. ambassador less than 18 months later is a disaster.”
Khalil, who wrote the book “Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation,” said it is to be expected that many Americans will therefore doubt the wisdom of the entire Arab Spring and Obama’s role in supporting it. Though several Republican lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, made it clear Wednesday that the messy setbacks of the last 24 hours should not dissuade the U.S. from supporting democracy.
Romney declined to speak about such subtleties or long-term goals in his remarks Wednesday morning. He preferred to keep his hit on the front-running Obama going, even canceling a planned campaign event in Jacksonville, Fla., to do so.
At a subsequent news conference, he dropped the domestic economy as a theme and seized upon the overseas emergency. The Republican first condemned the killing of the American diplomats, then added: “But it's also important for me -- just as it was for the White House last night, by the way -- to say that the statements were inappropriate and in my view, a disgraceful statement on the part of our administration to apologize for American values.”
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He didn’t back away when informed by reporters that the mild embassy statement had preceded the aggression by the protesters.
Obama’s true feelings on the embassy attacks became clear Wednesday, when he made an appearance in the White House Rose Garden with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” Obama said of U.S. commitment to supporting the fledgling democracy in Libya. “We will not waver in our commitment.”
The president added: “Make no mistake. Justice will be done.”
It would be hard to imagine that anything close to a majority of Americans believe their president -- who ordered the mission to kill Osama bin Laden -- now has more sympathy with Muslim fanatics than with the courageous American diplomats they killed. No right-thinking citizen feels the slightest sympathy for extremists who use the slightest pretense, or none at all, to attack Americans. But recognizing those extremist elements and opposing them forcefully does not preclude the U.S. government from also chastising those on the home front who enjoy inciting our most dangerous enemies.
President Obama struck the appropriate balance by recognizing the need to continue engagement with emerging democracies, while not forgiving the extremists trying to co-opt them. The man who covets the Oval Office sounded off before he had all the facts.
Most Americans prefer solidarity at troubling times like these. They’d doubtless tell Romney, “hold your fire.” Except for the attention-grabbing Pastor Jones, who might offer Romney a simple “God bless.”
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