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.”
Obama taped an interview for 60 Minutes later in the day in which he said the incident highlighted that “Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
“The situation in Cairo was one in which an embassy that is being threatened by major protests releases a press release saying that the film that had disturbed so many Muslims around the world wasn’t representative of what Americans believe about Islam, in an effort to cool the situation down. It didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton; it came from folks on the ground who are potentially in danger,” Obama said in the interview, as read to reporters by White House press secretary Jay Carney at the daily briefing. “And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.”
“At a time of national grief, it is distasteful and undignified to hear a candidate for the White House criticizing President Obama and the actions of diplomats as hostile crowds threaten our embassy,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) lashed out in a statement.
The barbs were just as sharp from the right. “This administration has no concept of the Arab Spring,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News. “They’re disengaging and the lack of leadership is about to lead to an explosion in the Middle East.”
“The fact that the host countries have mildly reacted to the attacks of the past 48 hours makes it abundantly clear that this administration’s support for their rise to power is another example of a failure in policy,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.).
Some weren’t eager to play political football, though. “Both the President and Gov. Romney were right in condemning these outrageous attacks on our citizens and our embassies,” tweeted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R).
Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), ranking members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a resolution commending the bravery of the State Department officers and condemning “in the strongest possible terms, the despicable attacks on American diplomats and public servants in Benghazi” and calling “for the perpetrators of such attacks to be brought to justice.”
Obama later called Afghan President Hamid Karzai and discussed the Benghazi attack, “and the presidents discussed the importance of working together to help ensure that the circumstances that led to the violence in Libya and Egypt do not pose a threat to U.S. forces or Afghans,” according to a readout from the White House.
The United Nations Security Council also issued a statement condemning both attacks and “underlined the need to bring perpetrators of these acts to justice” and “reaffirmed that such acts are unjustifiable regardless of their motivations, whenever and by whomsoever committed.”
As reports unfolded that the Libyan attack may have been pre-planned, with the protest as a potential diversion to draw out the ambassador, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) mused about links between the envoy’s slaying and al-Qaeda.
“These murders have the markings of revenge by al Qaeda for the death of the number two leader of the terrorist group, Abu Yahya al-Libi. The Associated Press has reported that the killing in June of al-Libi was the biggest setback to al-Qaeda since the death of Osama Bin Laden,” said Nelson, a member of the Intelligence Committee.
“In light of Monday night’s Internet-video statement by the head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who urged Libyans to attack Americans to avenge the recent death of al-Libi, I am asking my colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee to immediately investigate what role al Qaeda or its affiliates may have played in the attacks in Libya and Egypt, and to urge appropriate action,” he said. “For the safety of the remaining Americans, we need to secure our embassies in North Africa and around the world – and to stop terrorist-inspired mobs from doing evil deeds.”
“Since these events occurred on September 11th, I call on the Obama administration to investigate what happened and whether these attacks were coordinated,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “I appreciate the statements made by the Libyan government concerning these acts and urge them to follow through on pursuing these perpetrators.”
“The perpetrators of this senseless attack must be brought to justice,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “I, therefore, demand that until the Libyan police hand over suspects to U.S officials, any U.S. foreign aid to the government of Libya be contingent on their full support in this matter.”