This has been an extremely disquieting day, for several reasons. First and foremost, the US Ambassador to Libya was murdered in cold blood last night, along with three other diplomats -- and horrifying images of the carnage are being beamed around the world. A few basic facts via Reuters:
The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three embassy staff were killed in an attack on the Benghazi consulate and a safe house refuge, stormed by Islamist gunmen blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad. Gunmen had attacked and set fire to the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of last year's uprising against Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year rule, late on Tuesday evening as another assault was mounted on the U.S. embassy in Cairo. California-born ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in the assault, but it was not clear how or where he died. U.S. consular staff were rushed to a safe house after the initial attack, Libya's Deputy Interior Minister Wanis Al-Sharif said. An evacuation plane with U.S. commandos units then arrived from Tripoli to evacuate them from the house. "It was supposed to be a secret place and we were surprised the armed groups knew about it. There was shooting," Sharif said. Two U.S. personnel were killed there, he said. Two other people were killed at the main consular building and between 12 and 17 wounded.
But hold the phone. Other media reports now indicate the "spontaneous" protests over the controversial Islam film were exploited as a cover for a pre-meditated assassination plot. The Libyan minister quoted in the story above wonders how "the armed groups knew about" the location of the US safe house. An apparent answer: They may have been tipped off by elements within Libya's security forces. There are also clues emerging that US intelligence officials knew about threats of embassy violence in advance. These puzzle pieces raise a number of unpleasant questions: (1) How on earth was our consulate and staff so poorly protected? (2) How badly compromised are our operations in Libya -- and possibly elsewhere -- if even our worst-case-scenario "safe houses" aren't safe? (3) If this was in fact a long-planned raid, did our intelligence community miss it, or was our response delayed and/or botched? (4) Why did our State Department decide to keep our diplomats on the ground after numerous "warning signs" of increasing aggression prompted the British to pull their team out of Benghazi? (If you click through to that article, be prepared to read a Libyan official blaming the victims). (5) How were we caught flat-footed by violence on the obvious and symbolic date of September 11?
If the news bulletins are correct, and this really was a separate assassination plot, yesterday's events also demonstrate an alarming degree of public relations savvy by the responsible parties. They deliberately used the street protests as a ruse, knowing full well that Western political and media structures would rush to condemn the speech that "caused" the bloodshed, further muddying the waters. An evil, brilliant play. Meanwhile, the wildfire is spreading to other Middle Eastern nations, and our Afghan "ally" Hamid Karzai is using the flap to incite his populous against the United States. This is a full-fledged foreign policy and national security crisis. The President of the United States and the State Department should be answering some of the tough questions I outlined above. (Also: Did Barack Obama skip important intelligence briefings in the lead-up to these outrages? How is it remotely appropriate for him to attend his planned Las Vegas political fundraiser tonight in the midst of a sweeping international crisis?) They should also be pressed to explain the US embassy in Cairo's craven and disgraceful statements apologizing for the free speech "abuses" of the Egyptian ex-pats who dared to offend the sensibilities of Muslims. Free speech can be ill-advised, and the US government can disavow certain messages, but attempting to placate the barbarians by diminishing and critiquing basic Constitutional rights is unforgivable. Byron York has a helpful column charting the administration's weak, then increasingly robust, condemnations of the attacks over the last 24 hours.
Which brings me to the second element of why today has been so upsetting. In the face of swirling, ongoing world events and horrific murders, the American press is positively obsessed with Mitt Romney's reaction to the initial Cairo protests. Remember, Egyptian extremists breached our embassy and pulled down our flag, replacing it with what appeared to be an Al Qaeda flag of some sort. Our embassy there issued two statements, each of which focused on scolding the people whose free speech "provoked" the riots, rather than rejecting the rioters. Mitt Romney filled the void on behalf of the First Amendment, refused to shy away from American first principles, and excoriated the embassy's posture (the White House eventually did the same). Whether he should have so directly tied the actions of the embassy staff to the president is a subject for reasonable debate, but his sentiments and priorities were absolutely spot on. Nevertheless, the insta-narrative is that Romney "jumped the gun" by "politicizing" the tragedy in Libya. He did nothing of the sort. He didn't capture the scope of the Benghazi murders in his statement *about Egypt* because he wasn't yet aware of the full extent of those events, which had not been confirmed. National Review's Dan Foster reviews the timeline:
1) U.S. diplomats in Cairo shamefully apologize more or less preemptively for private U.S. citizens exercising their First Amendment rights in a way that “hurts the religious feelings” of Muslims. 2) “Protests” intensify into attacks on embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi. 3) Romney calls Cairo embassy response disgraceful. 4) Reports of murders of Americans in Benghazi confirmed. 5) Obama administration disavows Cairo embassy line. 6) Obama campaign flack LaBolt shames Romney for politicizing murders.
Romney gave a press conference this morning in which he expanded on his thoughts, strongly condemned the violent upheaval, affirmed America's commitment to free expression and expressed grief over the loss of American lives. Members of the media immediately peppered him with questions about his statement from last night, unwavering in their underlying assumption that he'd erred terribly. Katrina Trinko describes the astounding scene. Reporters honed in almost exclusively on the election horse-race implications of the Republican nominee's reaction to the unfolding crisis, based on a bizarre (and intentional?) misunderstanding of Romney's comments. They seemed entirely uninterested in the actual unfolding crisis itself. The governor's statement on Cairo has magically morphed into a callous and desperate attempt to score political points over the death of a US Ambassador in a totally separate incident, about which Romney didn't fully comment until this morning. Thus, what should be a news cycle about deeply unsettling international events instantly became a political pile-on -- not targeting the foreign policy team presiding over this disaster, mind you, but over something the president's challenger said in defense of free speech last night. I cannot think of a more comprehensive example of our media's endemic corruption and bias.
UPDATE - Some people will point out that some conservatives (many unnamed, a few named) have joined the media chorus against Romney. For shame. Romney is not above criticism from the right, even this close to a crucial election -- but those criticisms should at least be triggered by genuine campaign mistakes or policy missteps. But for supposed Romney allies to contribute to this absurd feeding frenzy is inexcusable. The media is blaming Romney for capitalizing politically on deaths that he *did not know about* when he released a (generally strong) repudiation of our Cairo embassy's reactions to a *different event.* They'd criticize him for any action he took here, unless it involved essentially applauding and agreeing with everything the Obama administration has done, then sitting quietly in a corner.