WASHINGTON - Tuesday’s attacks by alleged radical Islamists on key U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya and Egypt propelled foreign policy, however briefly, to the centre of the presidential race that has been dominated to date by the state of the economy.
Pointing to the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other U.S. officials in the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, President Barack Obama pledged that “justice will be done” against the attackers, while his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney assailed the administration for the second day in a row for allegedly “apolog(ising) for our values”.
He was referring to a statement issued Tuesday by the U.S. embassy in Cairo when it was under siege by several hundred protesters that denounced a privately produced video-tape that mocked the Prophet Muhammad and that apparently triggered the demonstrations in the Egyptian capital.
The video-tape, whose production was claimed by an obscure Israeli-American real estate investor whose actual identity became a source of much speculation here Wednesday, was promoted by Terry Jones, a Florida pastor whose past threats to burn Qurans had provoked riots in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries in 2010 and 2011, and by a prominent anti-Muslim U.S. Copt, Morris Sadek.
“America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies,” Romney said Wednesday during a press conference in Florida. “We’ll defend, also, our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion.
“Apology for America’s values is never the right course,” he stressed, adding that U.S. “leadership” was needed “to ensure that the Arab Spring does not become an Arab Winter”.
For his part, Obama himself repeated that his administration “reject(ed) all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others” but, speaking of the attack on the Benghazi consulate, emphasised “there is absolutely no justification (for) this type of senseless violence. None.”
He also stressed that Washington would remain engaged in Libya whose security forces, he said, had tried to repel the fatal attack by an alleged Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Ansar Al-Sharia, and helped some of the diplomats to safety. “(T)his attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya,” he declared.
The embassy assaults took place on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and also came amidst growing tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the latter’s increasingly hostile demands that Washington issue an ultimatum to Iran over its nuclear programme. They confirm that, to the extent foreign policy will play any role in the Nov. 6 election, the events in the Middle East are likely to be the focal point.
Romney and the Republicans have long charged that Obama has shown insufficient leadership in the region, both with respect to influencing the outcome of the “Arab Spring” – which they have mocked as “leading from behind” – and to failing to adequately support Israel in its confrontation with Iran, or, in the campaign shorthand, “throwing Israel under the bus”.
At the same time, however, polls have shown consistently that a majority of the electorate has more confidence in Obama as the steward of U.S. foreign policy and national security than in Romney.
More comprehensive surveys, such as one issued earlier this week by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, also suggest that Obama’s more cautious and less militaristic approach to the Middle East specifically and overseas developments more generally enjoys broad public support, as opposed to the more interventionist policies advocated by neo-conservatives and other hawks who dominate Romney’s foreign-policy team.
Until now, and particularly since his gaffe-ridden trip to Britain, Israel and Poland in July, Romney has shown some reluctance to make foreign policy a major issue in the race, preferring instead to dwell on the alleged shortcomings in the president’s economic record.
But that appeared to change Tuesday, when he declared that the Cairo embassy’s denunciation of the video was “disgraceful”, and his main foreign-policy spokesman, Richard Williamson, described the assaults as “part of a broader scheme of the president’s failure to be an effective leader for U.S. interests in the U.S.”
At the time, no one knew about the fate of Stevens, a career foreign-service officer who had served as Washington’s chief contact to the U.S.-backed insurgency that ousted long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year, and his colleagues.
After it became known, both Democrats and some Republicans blasted Romney’s statement as a blatant attempt to inject politics into a national tragedy, but the candidate doubled down on the issue Wednesday, winning praise from Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, an influential leader of the neo-conservative faction of the party.
“Romney is right to bring home the weakness of the Obama administration,” he wrote, adding that he should use this as the moment to focus his campaign more on foreign-policy issues.
But some independent analysts said they thought Romney had miscalculated. “I think it will backfire,” said Stephen Clemons, an influential analyst at The Atlantic magazine, “both because it will be seen as using an assassination of an ambassador for political purposes and because this incident will remind many people that there are real costs to the kind of interventionism that Romney and the neo-con crowd are promoting.”
Indeed, the reaction by some Congressional Republicans to the attacks was precisely to reduce U.S. engagement in both Egypt and Libya. Several were quoted in the press as calling for sharp reductions in economic and military to both countries.
And at least one right-wing commentator, the National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson, who is normally aligned with neo-conservatives, said the incidents should make Washington more cautious about any intervention in Syria or supporting popular forces in the region.
Indeed, a number of Middle East experts worried that Washington could overreact. “It would be a tragic mistake to allow the images from Cairo and Benghazi to undermine American support for the changes in the Arab world,” wrote Marc Lynch, a regional specialist at George Washington University, on his blog on foreignpolicy.com.
“The aspirations for democratic change of many millions of Arab citizens must not be delegitimated by the violent acts of a small group of radicals.”
Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations also stressed that the two incidents should be seen as quite separate. The siege in Cairo, she said, capped several days of denunciations of the media by religious leaders and some media organisations of the video, while the Benghazi attackers were heavily armed and completely overwhelmed the local security forces.
The administration, she said, had already sent surveillance drones over Benghazi to seek out possible Ansar camps, and she expected U.S. officials work closely with the government in Tripoli to apprehend or confront the perpetrators.