In an election campaign that is dominated by the economy, slow job growth and the nation’s fiscal crisis, this week’s attack on the American consulate in Benghazi put international affairs and national security back on the agenda, at least for a short while.
Incumbent president Barack Obama is confronted with one of the most tragic diplomatic crises in recent American history as his ambassador to Libya and three more Americans were killed in a raid on the consulate building.
Protests also erupted outside embassies in Egypt and Yemen.
It is not uncommon for American diplomats to attract agitation. Locals who disagree with American foreign policy often take to the streets and protest in front of embassy grounds.
What was different about this week’s unrest was their quick descent into chaos and violence.
The issue that apparently galvanized thousands of Arabs was not the typical grumblings of America’s support for Israel or America’s military presence in the Middle East, but rather an amateur film produced in the United States that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a way that most Muslims would consider, at the very least, disrespectful.
The only casualties of the protests in Cairo were broken windows and a defaced American flag. The violence in Benghazi was far more serious.
A demonstration there was overtaken by a concerted attack on the consulate by a band of Islamic extremists, who took advantage of the angry crowd. Gunmen with rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons took the American consulate by force, holding its residents in a state of siege for hours. The Libyan security forces drove them back and restored order but not before four diplomats, including Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, had died.
At a moment when President Obama is holding a comfortable lead over his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, on foreign policy, the attack in Libya and the murder of four American officials in that country puts him in the hot seat less than two months before Americans head to the polls.
Sensing an opportunity to steal some of that support, Romney and his campaign issued a number of statements and press releases linking the Libya attack to Obama’s policy in the region, calling it the latest example of America’s inability to project leadership under the Democrat.
In particular, an official release from the United States embassy in Cairo that read, “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” provided Romney with an opening.
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.
The Romney campaign seemed to think that using the violence in Libya as a talking point against the president is within bounds, but the ploy quickly backfired.
Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan questioned Romney’s decision, suggesting that he was trying to exploit a national tragedy to score political points.
House speaker John Boehner and the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, used far softer rhetoric than Romney, indicating that perhaps senior officials in the party disagree with the candidate’s attempt to politicize the attack.
So far, trying to discredit the president’s foreign policy has not given Romney a lead in the polls. Obama still holds an advantage on national-security issues, despite the killings, and his public vow to work with the Libyan authorities to bring those responsible to justice has given him the aura of a statesman rather than a politician seeking reelection. Staying above the fray should allow him to make the best of an otherwise horrible situation.