Is it just me, or is it starting to feel like 1979 all over again? The rising gas prices, the mobs storming American embassies in the Middle East, the killing of an American ambassador, and an administration whose first response to this week's crisis in Libya was not to condemn the attackers, but to blame Americans who "abuse" their right of free speech. By Friday, the administration had made clear it was not in fact siding with the mobs, but the damage was done.
Here's a look at the administration's first response as documented by the New York Times. A U.S. official "close to the issue" is now telling Foreign Policy that the embassy's original statement was put out against White House orders, but the White House has not commented. The official who put out the statement has not been disciplined. The statement came from the American embassy in Cairo on Tuesday morning, before Ambassador Christopher Stevens had been murdered:
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. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
The "condemnation" issued in the first sentence was not a condemnation of the violence, but a condemnation of an anti-Muslim film made by a private citizen in the United States who was "abusing" his right to free speech. No wonder the statement was controversial: The tone of it is defensive, weak, and embarrassed. It did not call for an end to the mayhem. It blamed America—and Americans who hurt others' feelings—first.
It reminds me of this passage from lifelong Democrat Jeane Kirkpatrick's 1984 speech at the Republican National Convention in which she recalled a similar time, when terrorists attacked the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon:
When our Marines, sent to Lebanon on a multinational peacekeeping mission with the consent of the United States Congress, were murdered in their sleep, the "blame America first crowd" didn't blame the terrorists who murdered the Marines, they blamed the United States. But then, they always blame America first.
And as the White House scrambled this week after snubbing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who wanted to meet about the lack of a credible U.S. response to Iran's nuclear buildup, I'm also reminded of when Kirkpatrick criticized Democrats for being indifferent to the "new vulnerabilities" of our allies and the development of new weapons by our enemies:
The Carter administration's motives were good, but their policies were inadequate, uninformed and mistaken. They made things worse, not better ... The United States grew weaker ...
Mitt Romney was right to criticize the administration's original response to the attacks on our embassies. And the White House knew he was right—based on its own continuing disavowal of the same statement. This controversy was the last thing the White House needed after the Netanyahu fiasco.
While the administration is right to condemn the obscure video that produced all this violence, it should also make it clear the U.S. government had nothing to do with the video—this one or any others like it. Like it or not, the freedom of speech that allowed this film to be produced in the first place is a right of individuals who live in democracies. In addition to American strategic interests, securing those basic human rights for many oppressed Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq was why the United States went to war there. In the age of YouTube, there are sure to be other incidents like this; the administration's policy should be first, to condemn violence of any kind and second, to stand up strongly for free speech and other basic human rights in the Muslim world.
As Kirkpatrick would put it, Obama's motives may be good, but his policies are inadequate, uninformed and mistaken.