Still, the newspaper seems to want to treat foreign policy as a distraction. “Both candidates were pushed off message in the wake of the Middle East turmoil that roiled the campaign last week,” Philip Rucker and David Nakamura wrote on Sept. 17. “Obama was forced to defend his administration’s handling of the crisis as Romney sharply criticized it.”
It’s odd to think that discussing foreign policy could put the campaigns “off message.” A president is, after all, supposed to be in charge of foreign policy. It seems reasonable to expect the applicants for president to talk about it. We’ve recently seen just how important this can be.
Diplomats abroad represent the government of the United States. They must, therefore, speak with tact, but also with honesty. After all, most of the people they’re speaking to have no first-hand experience with the U.S. Our diplomats are teaching foreigners about America. In fact, the “primary purpose of United States public diplomacy is to explain, promote, and defend American principles to audiences abroad.” The president sets the tone with the people he appoints to run the State Department.
So consider the message our government sent with this statement that the American Embassy in Egypt put out on Sept. 11: “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.”
It was speaking out against a low-budget film that has apparently been screened only once, to an audience of about a dozen people. The embassy seems to have been attempting to reduce tensions in the region. That obviously didn’t work, as a mob soon stormed the embassy compound anyway. Another mob killed four Americans in Libya.
Sadly, we’re not doing a very good job defending the idea of free speech. Not only have federal officials gone out of their way to condemn the controversial movie, but sheriff’s deputies showed up at the filmmaker’s home at midnight on a Saturday to bring him in for questioning.
That’s sending exactly the wrong message to the “Arab street.” Egypt’s government may well have the power to take legal action against filmmakers, and Egyptians may assume the American government does as well. But there are no “legal measures” to take here. Our government doesn’t control American film makers. Yet, looking at the picture of a filmmaker being loaded into a police car, some confusion is in the Islamic world is understandable.
Our diplomats need to remind publics overseas that our government’s authority over filmmakers (and writers, and orators) is rightly limited. That will be difficult to do, but we need to make the effort.