Behold the harvest of the Arab Spring: attacks — contemporaneous if not coordinated — on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of September 11. In the former, the American colors were hoisted down, desecrated, and burned, and the black flag of Islamism raised in their place. In the latter, the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three members of his staff were murdered in a rocket attack as they attempted to evacuate the facility. Whether both acts of terrorism were committed in protest of a low-budget American film allegedly insulting to the Prophet Mohammed or, as reports now suggest, the Libyan attack was a planned response to the killing of al-Qaeda’s No. 2 in Yemen, the portent is equally disturbing.
The sacrosanctity of diplomats and their missions is among the oldest and most basic axioms of intercourse between civilized nations, and the fact that neither the Egyptian nor the Libyan government acted to prevent these assaults suggests that barbarism is alive and well in Arab North Africa. Egypt’s failure is especially conspicuous, because that country actually has a functioning government and military. Nearly as disturbing was the response, both preemptive and cowardly, of the U.S. mission in Cairo, which went out of its way to condemn not its besiegers, but private citizens of the West who may or may not have “hurt the religious feelings” of riotous Muslims.
Americans are murdered by Islamists, and sovereign American soil is violated, on the anniversary of September 11, and the first word from the administration to reach the world is an apology. So naturally, the mainstream media are focusing on what they in their considered wisdom have determined is Mitt Romney’s crass and ill-timed response to the crisis, even as the Obama campaign found itself in a foot race with the Obama administration to see whether the former could condemn Romney before the latter condemned the terrorists.
But Romney was right to call the Cairo embassy’s obsequiousness “disgraceful,” which is why the White House eventually followed Romney’s lead in disavowing it. Romney was also right to defend his statement against charges that he had “jumped the gun,” saying it is “never too early . . . to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.” Although the press acted as if Romney’s performance at the press conference was laughably unpresidential, what he said was appropriate and true: “It breaks the hearts of all of us who think of these people who have served during their lives for the cause of freedom and justice and honor,” and “the attacks in Libya and Egypt underscore that the world remains a dangerous place, and that American leadership is still sorely needed.”
Above the political fray and campaign hay, there is also the question of what to do next. There are reports that elite Marine counterterrorism units are even now en route to Libya, and we understand that the president has ordered increased security at U.S. diplomatic facilities. These are both to the good, and we should not be hamstrung by diplomatic niceties or, indeed, by these governments’ demonstrably weak sovereignties in bringing the terrorists to justice. But the question remains why Stevens and embassy staff were not effectively protected in the first place, on either side of the embassy walls.
If President Obama is to meet with the Egyptian leader, Mohamed Morsi, the embassy breach should be the first item on the agenda. If we are to follow through on the provision of aid to Egypt, for instance, the money should change hands only after guarantees are made and concrete steps are taken to protect our missions. Notably, while the Libyan government has already formally apologized for the outrages on its soil, the Egyptian government has not. Its prime minister, Hisham Kandil, merely called the breach “regrettable” — immediately before calling on the United States to “criminalize acts that stir strife on the basis of race, color, or religion.”
That is, Egypt’s new government wants the United States to repeal the First Amendment. But when it comes to Islamists who seize American soil or kill American citizens, we prefer solutions rooted in the amendment just after it.