The Immediate Lessons of the Attack on the U.S. Embassies

Military analysis.
Sept. 12 2012 3:19 PM

The Right Response to the Libya and Egypt Attacks

Which politicians responded forcefully and eloquently, and which ones smirked?

A vehicle and the surround buildings burn after they were set on fire.
A vehicle and the surround buildings burn after they were set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya late on Tuesday.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

The story has just begun. We don’t yet know its contours—whether it will unfold as a one-shot tragedy or as the opening salvo of a monumental crisis. But less than a full day after the violent assault on the U.S. embassy in Egypt and the killing of our ambassador and three of his staff in Libya, a few lessons can be noted.

First, diplomacy still matters, perhaps above all else. Hillary Clinton reported this morning, in her most eloquent news conference as secretary of state, that Libyan citizens and security forces had tried to fight off the small mob of militants who set fire to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and that, afterward, they’d sheltered many survivors and carried the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, to a nearby hospital. They did this, in good part, because they knew Stevens. A year ago, as the U.S. emissary, he had helped the rebels—who now form Libya’s fledgling democratic government—in their fight to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Ever since, he’d been greeted as a friend in his travels around the country.

Similarly, Clinton said, Egyptian security forces helped American guards stave off those who stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo before much damage was done. Though she didn’t mention it, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, must know that his country’s fortunes, and thus his own political prospects, depend on foreign aid and investment. A few days earlier, Morsi had met with American businessmen and tried to assure them that the climate for investment was sound. Nobody will believe this message if he can’t guarantee the security of foreign embassies on Egyptian soil—or prosecute those who violate their sovereign status.

Second, what we’re seeing is, potentially, a conflict not only between the West and radical Islam but also between elements within Islam. Obama has dispatched 200 Marines to beef up security at other embassies in the region, a sensible move. But beyond that, he and his aides no doubt know that, in the long run, it’s important for President Morsi, Libya’s leaders, and at least a few other prominent Muslim spokesmen throughout the region to denounce the most violent of these protesters—and to denounce the very tactic of assaulting embassies and killing diplomats as an antiquated practice that violates their principles and has no place in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

Getting them to do this will be a delicate task, requiring a fine mix of pressure (no more IMF loans or business investment if you don’t control the violence—not a threat, just a fact of what will happen) and incentives (the money and much else will flow if you get on the right side).

A major obstacle here is that domestic politics suffuses every pixel of this picture. Morsi and the other Muslim leaders are in a bit of a bind. The militants form a segment of their constituencies; many others may oppose the militants’ action but regard the American-made anti-Islamic movie that inspired the protest as more repellent still. Morsi issued a statement demanding that the U.S. government prosecute those who made the movie. Obviously, this is not going to happen. It is very hard to convince foreigners, especially those who grew up under authoritarian regimes, that America is not a monolithic society. The notion that some idiots and ideologues can make and release a movie without getting some stamp of approval from the government strikes them as literally unbelievable.

One task ahead is to persuade these leaders that this really is the way things work here, that we value free speech, even stupid free speech—while still expressing some sympathy with their concerns (and understanding that they might not want to adopt the same system). This is a long-term task, one that requires—and will evolve in tandem with—the integration of their societies into the rest of the world: economically, socially, and, to some extent, culturally. The major challenge is that this integration is precisely what the militant protesters most oppose. If the events of the last 24 hours prove pivotal, it will be because they forced the Muslim leaders to choose which path they want to follow.

Third and finally, these events have highlighted just how stunningly unready Mitt Romney is for prime time—how little he understands the business of being president or, for that matter, holding any post of national leadership in American politics.

Early this morning, Romney issued a statement that condemned not only the attackers on the embassies but also the Obama administration for sympathizing with the attackers. Neither Obama nor his officials had done any such thing. For a little while, it looked like Romney might have merely misunderstood the chronology of events. He criticized the embassy in Cairo for issuing a statement deploring “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Romney depicted this statement as a shocking “apology” for the “American principles” of free speech and an act of appeasement in the face of an attack on sovereign U.S. territory.

What Romney or his staff might not have known at the time was that the embassy issued this appeal six hours before the protesters assaulted the walls. After the walls were breached, the embassy put out a revised statement, condemning the attack. (The revision, however, did reaffirm the sentiment of the original statement—an affirmation that Obama spokesmen disavowed, saying it had not been cleared with Washington.)

After these facts became clear (along with reports of Stevens’ death, which he hadn’t known about), Romney could have backpedaled. But instead the Republican presidential hopeful stepped on the gas. He held a press conference—just minutes before President Obama was scheduled to speak—and repeated his attacks. Worse yet, he spoke his lines with a slight smirk, as if taking undisguised delight at scoring political points. When a reporter asked what he would have done differently had he been president, he had no answer. Instead he repeated his line that Obama’s embassy was “apologizing for American principles” and that, when these things happen, “you speak out.”

No other prominent Republican, even those who have vigorously criticized Obama in the past, has spoken out against the president on this issue. Sens. John McCain and Mitch McConnell, as well as House Speaker John Boehner, have stepped before microphones to condemn the attacks, mourn the deaths, and assert American unity in seeking justice. These politicians know, as Romney apparently doesn’t, that in these sorts of crises, the proper thing to do is to rally around the flag.

Ironically, it’s also the politically smart thing to do. Imagine if Romney had called President Obama, asked how he could be of assistance in this time of crisis, offered to appear at his side at a press conference to demonstrate that, when American lives are at risk, politics stop at the water’s edge—and then had his staff put out the word that he’d done these things, which would have made him look noble and might have made Obama look like the petty one if he’d waved away these offers.

But none of this is in Romney. He imagined a chink in Obama’s armor, an opening for a political assault on the president’s strength and leadership, and so he dashed to the barricades without a moment of reflection, a nod to propriety, or a smidgen of good strategy.