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.
In fact, the president told 60 Minutes that he agreed with Schwartz:
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. 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.
"Cutting them some slack" by allowing an official release from the U.S. government to criticize Americans for exercising their right of free speech? An official release that was allowed to stand for 16 hours without any public objections from Washington? Obama is the president. He certainly "questioned their judgement" when he disavowed the statement. Why did it take 16 hours to do the right thing?
If the embassy statement was the only apologia issued by the administration, one could take their disavowal of it at face value. However, first Hillary Clinton and then the president justified the attacks and, in the next breath, said there was no justification for them.
Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.
How can any reasonable observer not be startled by the dichotomy inherent in that statement? The Islamist argument is validated. By acknowledging there is "an intentional effort to denigrate" Islam, how can that not be interpreted as agreeing with the fanatics that they have a point? The addition of the "no justification" sentence is meaningless when one has just given the rioters all the justification they need to attack.
President Obama's statement is even more curious:
While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.
Why did Secretary Clinton and President Obama -- and our embassy in Cairo -- feel it necessary to point out the obvious? Matt Welch:
If the U.S. government really was in the business of "firmly reject[ing]" private free-speech acts that "hurt the religious beliefs of others" there would be no time left over for doing anything else.
It's really not that hard. The values in that film (or "film") are not our values; our government respects religion, religious expression, and religious pluralism (including and especially that of Muslims, even in the wake of murderous Muslim-led attacks on American soil); and we are not in the business of approving or (for the most part) regulating the private speech of our citizens. To the extent that that message is not sufficient for rioters, the problem is theirs.
And this is pretty much what Romney said in a press conference the next morning:
America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We'll defend, also, our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion. We have confidence in our cause in America. We respect our Constitution. We stand for the principles our Constitution protects. We encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our Constitution, because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world.
But couldn't Romney have waited 24 or 48 hours to make a political attack on the president? Ed Morrissey points to a moment in the 2008 campaign when nine Americans lost their lives in Afghanistan. Obama was on CNN within hours of the tragedy and blasted John McCain.
But whether Obama did much the same thing is irrelevant. A great, big, sucking vacuum was created by the contradictory statements of the United States government on these attacks. Romney's statement may have crossed the invisible "water's edge" but it was needed as a panacea for the insipid platitudes about tolerance emanating from an apologetic White House and State Department.
In that regard, Romney was right and his critics are dead wrong.