Why Defending Free Speech Is More Important than Criticizing Bigotry

Mitt Romney is being pilloried in the press for playing politics with the attacks on our embassy in Egypt and consulate in Libya. But Romney was right to make an issue of what he termed the president's "disgraceful" response to the crisis -- even though Romney was originally responding to a statement put out by our embassy in Cairo several hours before the attacks occurred. The fact is, the administration's response wasn't quite so craven in its groveling before the Islamists, but it reflected the exact same sentiments: it acknowledged that American bigotry was at the heart of the protests that resulted in the murders of our diplomats in Benghazi and the outrageous attack on our embassy in Cairo and failed utterly in defending our core values, including freedom of speech.

Romney's error in ascribing the Cairo embassy statement to the administration's response to the attacks is a distraction. So is the notion that he shouldn't have harshly criticized the president at a time of national crisis. But someone had to stand up for free speech in that critical hour. And since the president, who one would normally expect to defend our values before the world, declined to do so, it was left to the man who wants to be president to fill the void in leadership left by Barack Obama.

Is it important that Romney got the facts wrong and took the pre-attack embassy posting as a response by the White House to the outrages? It would be important if Romney jumped the gun and "shoots first, aims later" as the president described it. But at the time the Cairo embassy statement became generally known (the White House and State Department were fully aware of it from the moment it was released -- 16 hours before they disavowed it), the attacks had already occurred, and since there was no time stamp on the statement, it was logical to assume the statement was in response to the attacks.

Josh Rogin, writing at The Cable, has a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the origins of the statement and the tweets that defended it.

The official noted that the statement was posted at exactly 12:18 p.m. Cairo time -- 6:18 a.m. Washington time -- well before the protests began. Romney has said, wrongly, that the statement was the administration's first response to the protests, but the official said that the demonstrations did not begin until 4 p.m. Cairo time and protesters breached the wall about 2 hours later.

Romney's statement was released at 10:00 p.m. EST and embargoed until midnight. But 10 minutes after Romney's statement was emailed, the Obama White House disavowed the Cairo press release. (Romney lifted the embargo on his statement 15 minutes after the White House disavowal.) For the previous 16 hours, there was a furious exchange of emails between the State Department and the Cairo embassy, and the White House and Foggy Bottom. At one point, even Secretary or State Hillary Clinton became involved. In short, the Obama White House allowed the statement to stand for most of the day as the official position of the United States and only disavowed it when it became controversial.

One might gently ask White House press secretary Jay Carney why a statement so objectionable that it had to be disavowed was allowed to stand for 16 hours as the official position of the United States government. It didn't matter if it was in response to the attacks or not. The statement and the tweets supporting it were fully known to those whose responsibility it is to defend American values. And the president failed in that responsibility.

According to Rogin, the State Department and White House are blaming one person for the statement and subsequent tweets. The scapegoat is senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz, who, we assume, is also responsible for the deleted tweets. One of his tweets was pathetic:

Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we’re the ones actually living through this.

Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.

So, the reason we put out a statement groveling before the Islamists by agreeing with their status as being the aggrieved party is because they might hurt us if we actually defended American values. There is a time to criticize "bigotry" and a time to defend America. To believe that one can do both at the same time is illogical.

Now, one can sympathize with embassy personnel who almost certainly were thinking of Tehran, 1979. But the foreign service is one of the most competitive employment opportunities in America. If you don't want to do your job in standing up for what America is all about, one might one suggest you go to work for a think tank or get a nice, cushy job in academia. There are plenty of young, ambitious foreign service officers made of sterner stuff who would gladly change places with Mr. Schwartz.