Flags were lowered to half-staff around the capital today in honor of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three members of embassy staff killed in an attack at the consulate in Benghazi.
But the tragic mob attacks in Libya and at the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11 also spiraled into an unforeseen twist in election-season politics — toward the rarely mentioned trail topic of foreign policy. Lawmakers on the Hill, though, were quick to point out that the attacks on U.S. personnel, ostensibly sparked by anger over a trailer for an anti-Muhammad film, were not unexpected in a powder-keg landscape.
Chris Stevens, 52, was the first U.S. ambassador to die in the line of duty since 1979, when Ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed in Afghanistan.
Also killed were Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, a husband and father of two, and two other Americans whose names have not been released.
Stevens and other staff were trying to evacuate the consulate as the well-armed mob set fire to the building. Libyan citizens brought Stevens to Benghazi Medical Center, where a doctor reportedly tried for an hour and a half to revive him yet the ambassador succumbed to smoke inhalation.
“We extend our apology to America, the American people and the whole world,” said Libya’s interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, vowing to bring the attackers to justice. Officials said up to 10 Libyan security guards who were defending the U.S. installation were also killed.
Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa A.G. Abushagur wrote on his Facebook page that Stevens was a “dear friend” who was instrumental in helping Libyans revolt against dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“There is never any justification for this type of action. There must and will be consequences. Those who were involved at all levels must be found and punished. These actions run counter to the very foundations of free Libya, of democracy, and of Islam. They are reprehensible,” Abushagur wrote.
“Our revolution is not complete simply because Gaddafi is gone. Our revolution will be complete when our state institutions are strong, when heavy arms are in the hands of only the government and when our streets are safe to all — both to Libyans and to our honored guests,” he continued. “The government cannot do this alone — I call on all true Libyans to hand in their weapons, and to work together to make a better Libya for all. Our shared security is the bedrock of our freedom. This kind of shameful behavior — mobs using force on their own accord — cannot happen again, no matter the target or motivation.”
Libyans also protested the attacks in Benghazi and Tripoli today, holding signs such as “Chris Smith was a friend to all Libyans” and “Benghazi is against terrorism.”
In the United States, the attacks quickly became a point of campaign contention.
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions,” the embassy said in a statement yesterday as protesters scaled the walls of the compound and tore down the American flag. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
“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,” Mitt Romney said in an email sent out by his campaign last night. “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.”
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened the morning with statements condemning the Benghazi attack followed by a statement to reporters in the Rose Garden.
“We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None,” Obama said. “The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.”
The White House maintained that it neither drafted nor approved the Cairo Embassy statement.
Romney called a press conference on the road in Jacksonville, Fla., to elaborate on the tragedy and the “mixed signals” Washington sent to the world by distancing itself from the Cairo communique.
“It’s their administration. Their administration spoke. The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also from the words that come from his ambassadors from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department,” Romney said. “The statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology and I think was a severe miscalculation.”