The protests that swept the Middle East last year were dubbed the “Arab Spring” and while they began in hope, they have unleashed forces of chaos and instability likely to dog the region indefinitely. The Obama administration has rightly condemned the attacks on our embassy in Cairo and especially the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three other U.S. personnel were killed.
The attacks were said to arise from a despicable low-budget YouTube film depicting the prophet Mohammed as a womanizer. But it may take time to sort out many of the facts surrounding these incidents and their origins.
The consulate assault in Libya, which included rockets and bombs, may have been planned. Deputy Interior Minister Wanis El-Sharif blamed die-hard supporters of deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who may have been waiting for the opportunity presented by the film. This attack killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
President Barack Obama praised Stevens and the other slain Americans. He condemned both attacks “in the strongest terms,” and praised Libyan authorities for helping protect Americans in the consulate, fighting back against the attackers and conveying Stevens' body to a hospital. “This attack,” he said, “will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya.”
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As for Egypt, Washington should demand an accounting. Several hundred security personnel were deployed to protect the embassy Wednesday, but the day before security was obviously inadequate — a mob stormed the facility, tore down the American flag and replaced it with a banner said to be that of al-Qaida. On the anniversary of Sept. 11, it should be expected that security of U.S. embassies would be particularly high.
The anti-Islam film was clearly provocative, but every host country has a duty to protect embassies and diplomatic facilities on its territory. Moreover, Egypt may have earlier signaled that such attacks would be winked at, given the light punishments handed out to several dozen people charged with storming and looting the Israeli embassy a year ago. Obama should insist that those involved in the Tuesday attack be apprehended and brought to justice.
The incidents quickly became fodder for the U.S. presidential campaign. Republican Mitt Romney issued a hasty statement condemning a release in which the Cairo embassy said it “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” That language, Romney suggested, appeared to sympathize with the mob. “An apology for America's values is never the right course,” he said.
But Romney deserves criticism for acting too impulsively. The embassy release was issued before the mob attack, not after. It was an apparent and unsuccessful attempt to mollify rapidly increasing tensions. Romney's inflammatory foreign policy accusations — reiterated on Wednesday — serve no one, especially in light of the tragic deaths.
Obama has ordered increased security at U.S. diplomatic facilities. The administration should make it clear to host countries that Washington expects adequate security for U.S. diplomats and installations, just as other nations expect the same of us.