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Don't Politicize Embassy Attacks

Don't Politicize Embassy Attacks

By Mark Salter - September 12, 2012

I am not in the habit of defending President Obama’s foreign policy, and that is not my purpose here.

I strongly disagree with his insistence on a specific and public timetable for our withdrawal from Afghanistan, which I suspect is motivated chiefly by domestic political considerations.

I thought his failure to negotiate successfully with the Iraqi government to keep a residual force in that nation was a terrible failure. I was appalled by his reluctance to speak out forcefully in support of Iranian protesters three years ago, and I’m appalled now by his policy toward the Syrian rebellion or, more accurately, the lack of one, which has exacerbated the very developments the administration sought to avoid: a full scale civil war and the growing involvement of Islamic extremists in the rebellion.

However, his policies are not responsible for the attacks on our embassy in Cairo and our consulate in Benghazi or the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. In the wake of this violence, the rush by Republicans -- including Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and scores of other conservative critics -- to condemn him for policies they claim helped precipitate the attacks is as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing.

The initial object of their scorn was a statement released by our embassy in Cairo in advance of the attacks, intended to placate Egyptians who were outraged by an inflammatory, bigoted anti-Islam video posted on the Internet, that superhighway for hateful rhetoric, by an evidently hateful -- though, until now, obscure -- American racist.

The embassy statement was inartfully worded and its timing misguided, and it should have explained that freedom of speech is an essential right in a genuinely free society, which suffers expressions of deplorable beliefs in order to protect inoffensive speech -- for example, the right to proselytize on behalf of your religion. It should also have insisted that the government of Egypt meet its responsibility as host country to protect our embassy and the lives of our diplomats from attack.

Having said that, while its timing and wording was dubious, there is nothing wrong in principle with making clear to people, who have yet to embrace the categorical right to free speech, that Americans and their government deplore the deplorable, that we reject vile attacks on Muslims as vigorously as we reject vile anti-Semitic attacks.

To do so does not constitute sympathy for the people besieging our embassy, as Gov. Romney alleged. Nor is at an apology for America, as some Obama critics have claimed. It’s an expression of our decency.

Moreover, the embassy’s statement was released before the attack, and was not, according to administration officials, approved by the State Department. If that’s true, it cannot be fairly attributed to the president.

In fairness, too, the Romney campaign released his statement before we learned of the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi. But like the rest of us, they woke up to tragic news this morning. And the governor has apparently doubled down in his criticism of Obama today, calling the embassy’s statement “akin to an apology” and a “severe miscalculation,” which strikes me as implicitly suggesting that it was at least a contributing factor to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi.

I understand the Romney campaign is under pressure from some Republicans to toughen its attacks on the president. Four years ago, the McCain campaign was regularly urged to do the same, while at the same time we were unfairly accused by more than a few Democrats and many in the press of inflaming race-based opposition to our opponent. I’m sympathetic to Romney’s predicament.

But this is hardly the issue or the moment to demonstrate a greater resolve to take the fight to the president. Four good Americans, brave and true, have just died in service to their country. They were killed because some of the Libyans who fought a civil war for freedom, or cynically pretended freedom was their cause, do not really approve or understand freedom’s values. Nothing said or done by the president or anyone in the U.S. government is responsible for the violence that led to their deaths.

In the days and weeks ahead, there are legitimate questions to ask of ourselves and the governments of Libya and Egypt about why and how this atrocity occurred and to demand justice for its victims. And there are legitimate criticisms to make about the administration’s foreign policy.

But, please, let’s refrain from making this terrible loss an occasion for more unfair and hyperbolic sound bites in a campaign that is already depressingly oversupplied with them on both sides.

For now, let us just bury and mourn our dead, and strengthen our resolve to defend the American values and interests they died for, with the courage and patriotism they exemplified. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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