"It's disgraceful," Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney proclaimed, "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."
Except, none of what Romney said was actually true.
While factual misrepresentation has proved to be a hallmark of the Romney/Ryan campaign (e.g. the lie that Obama stole $716 billion from Medicare to fund "Obamacare" or the bogus claim that the President's Ohio lawsuit, which sought to open Early Voting for all, was actually an effort to suppress the military vote), the effort to exploit a tragic assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his aides was seen by Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation as so despicable as to "disqualify" Romney as a candidate for our nation's highest office.
The statement which Romney seized upon was not made by the President or anyone on its staff, but from the Cairo Embassy. More importantly, Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast observed, the Cairo Embassy statement was issued before either it or the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was attacked.
For the same reasons expressed by General David Petraeus two years ago when he warned that a plan to commemorate 9/11 by burning Qurans would endanger U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had sought to prevent a violent reaction by condemning "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims --- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
Nonetheless, TPM's Benjy Sarlin notes that Romney shamelessly refused to back off his inaccurate critique of the President --- in the midst of a very live, ongoing crisis during which the whereabouts of a U.S. Ambassador remained unknown --- even when confronted by reporters about the chronology of events, because the Cairo Embassy apparently was not as swift as Romney felt they should have been in taking down their tweets in the wake of a violent assault on their Embassy and the one in Libya. Romney insisted the President was responsible for the Embassy's statement, which statement, the GOP Presidential candidate claimed, was "akin to [an] apology."
In truth, neither the President nor the Embassy "sympathized" with the attack or the attackers. To the contrary, the Cairo Embassy followed the attack with this tweet (emphasis added): "This morning's condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy."
But the incident has turned out to be rather revealing about the GOP nominee's readiness to serve as President of the United States...
Palin and Priebus pile on
Joining Romney in his misguided, ill-timed attack in the midst of a major foreign policy crisis, was RNC chair Reince Priebus who echoed Romney's remarks with a tweet:
Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt.Sad and pathetic.
— Reince Priebus (@Reince) September 12, 2012
Former GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin also seized upon what she saw as an "outrageous statement" by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. "The embassy," she proclaimed inaccurately on her Facebook page, "apologized to the violent mob attacking us, and it even went so far as to chastise those who use free speech to 'hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'" She then shifted her ire to the President himself, claiming it was time he "stood up for America and condemned these Islamic extremists."
Of course, back here in the World of Reality, neither the Embassy nor the President expressed sympathy with the attackers. And, as usual, Palin revealed a lack of insight, not just into Foreign Policy, but into the scope of First Amendment protections and the rights of others to criticize a reckless disregard for the consequences of incitement --- even when such provocations are technically protected by the First Amendment.
President condemns attack
The President's remarks were clear and unequivocal today:
I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.
Yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater
The violent reaction of the attackers in both Libya and Egypt was, according to Los Angeles Times, triggered by a YouTube release of a clip of the anti-Islam film, "Innocence of Muslims." The film was said to have been produced by a "Sam Bacile", an Israeli filmmaker who resides in California. [UPDATE 9/14/11: It now appears that "Sam Bacile" is a pseudonym for Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt with a recent history of criminal felonies, rather than an "Israeli filmmaker" as had originally been widely reported. See AP details here, and still more details from LA Times here.]
Infamous Quran burning Pastor Terry Jones promoted the clip's release.
Neither man is in a position to say that they were surprised by the violent reactions in Egypt and Libya. Jones, of course, had come under a firestorm of criticism for his threat to burn the Quran two years ago, including, as mentioned above, General Petreus' assessment that Jones' rash act could put our troops at risk. "Bacile" was reportedly warned by consultant Steve Klein that he, "Bacile", would become "the next Theo van Gogh" --- the Dutch filmmaker who was killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004 after making a film which insulted Islam.
While "Bacile" was concerned enough for his own safety to go into hiding, he had the temerity to blame "lax embassy security" for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, according to the LA Times report.
Given their foreknowledge, "Bacile" and Jones' reckless disregard for the likely consequences of their provocation comes very close to yelling "fire" in a crowded theater --- raising a serious question as to whether their film amounts to free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Even if the film is protected from censorship by the First Amendment, that does not mean that it is a violation of the First Amendment rights of either the filmmaker or the "pastor" for someone in government to criticize them for their unnecessary, and now deadly, provocation.
Unfit to serve?
Romney's premature, inaccurate intrusion into U.S. foreign policy amidst a hot crisis, has raised questions today about his fitness for office. The GOP Presidential nominee has not, so far today, enjoyed the support of most mainstream GOP officials. "In the House and Senate," according to Sarlin at TPM, "top Republican leaders refrained from mentioning Obama, and instead offered messages of sympathy, unity and even praise for the State Department."
While CNN, which fails all the time, failed yet again last night in repeating Romney's criticism without bothering to accurately note the timeline of events, even usually-reliable pro-Republican journalists like Mark Halperin condemned him, charging that "his doubling down on criticism of the President for the statement coming out of Cairo is likely to be seen as one of the most craven and ill-advised tactical moves in this entire campaign."
TPM's Josh Marshall puts the affair into more political prospective this morning by noting: "Some moments show you when a candidate is ready or not to become President of the United States. I suspect last night will become one of those moments for Mitt Romney. The verdict will not be positive."
The false claim about Obama's "apology" by Romney, or by Romney's campaign --- as with his false claim that Obama was attempting to block the military vote in Ohio last month --- was "picked wholesale from the right-wing blogosphere," according to Marshall.
"Politics is hardball. Everything is, in some sense, fair. But campaigns are also a prism into the judgment and steadiness under pressure of a person who would be president," writes Marshall. "This was amateur hour for the opposition campaign last night, reminiscent of John McCain’s rash call four years ago to cancel the presidential debates and the campaign itself to deal with the unfolding economic crisis. There was nothing ignoble or dishonorable about McCain’s suggestion. It just showed a certain rashness that was widely viewed as unpresidential."
"Romney’s moment was quite different — rash and shameful. Not worthy of a president. Crass, undignified and troubling on many levels."
UPDATE: According to The New York Times President Obama told CBS' 60 Minutes that this incident reflects Romney’s "tendency to shoot first and aim later. And as President, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that…[I]t’s important for you to make sure that the statements you make are backed up by the facts. And that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them."
UPDATE 9/13/12: Los Angeles Times now questions whether "Sam Bacile" is a real name. The paper reports that the individual who told an AP reporter during a phone interview that he was an Israeli living in California may neither be an Israeli nor even Jewish.
Steve Klein, who claims he consulted with the filmmaker, "said Bacile was a pseudonym." Klein, now a Hemet insurance agent, was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center "as an ex-Marine who has been active in anti-Muslim and extremist groups for decades," according to the LA Times article.
Rachel Maddow devoted a segment of her show to the possibility that plans for the violent assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi were developed by al Qaeda prior to the YouTube release of the offensive clip. Maddow suggested the violent attack may have been orchestrated to retaliate for the drone strike which reportedly resulted in the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi.
Also, Los Angeles Times reported this morning that protesters have now attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.
Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968). Follow him on Twitter: @Cann4ing.