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Who’s Playing Politics with Foreign Policy in the Middle East?

EDITORIAL OPINION: No one should be surprised that, with the presidential election looming near, the causes of the recent violent events in Libya, Egypt, and now Yemen would get lost in political rhetoric and posturing. As reporters confer with each other on how to best coordinate their questions to a presidential contender, the chief executive of this country makes a speech and answers no questions at all.

Two days ago a mob sacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three U.S. government employees. The attack came just hours after a demonstration in Cairo, where protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. embassy and pulled down the American flag in protest over a video, produced in the United States, which protesters said mocked the prophet Muhammad.

The American embassy in Egypt is the largest in the region, manned by the cream of the crop from the State Department. No consulate in the Middle East is better staffed or has more immediate contact with the White House. So what was the first response of the well-connected staff of this flagship consulate? To apologize for the hurt feelings a third-rate YouTube video might have inflicted on the mob seeking to scale its walls.

The embassy statement in question said: “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy.” It also condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

The timeline for what happened after that is now lost in the haze of a coordinated attack against the one man willing to speak the obvious this past Tuesday night. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Tuesday criticized President Barack Obama’s response to violent attacks at U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya as foreign policy entered the presidential campaign.

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” Romney said in a statement. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” he said.

“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” Romney told reporters at a press conference held inside his Jacksonville campaign headquarters where supporters who’d gathered for a separate event looked on through windows. “Instead, when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, the first response of the Unites States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation.”

Faced with the failure of his “lead from behind” strategy that supposedly freed Libya from tyranny, President Obama’s surrogates have gone on the attack against the obvious “culprit” in this sad affair, Mitt Romney. Before proceeding, let me state upfront that I did not vote for Romney as my choice for a contender to Barack Obama. But unlike those from both the left and right who have now become focused on whether Romney’s response was ill-timed, let me just say that I’m glad at least someone had the guts to give the right response.

Ben LaBolt , a spokesman for Obama’s re-election campaign, criticized Romney’s statement: “We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” LaBolt said early today in an e-mailed statement.

One Republican, a former Bush State Department official, told BuzzFeed, “It wasn’t presidential of Romney to go political immediately — a tragedy of this magnitude should be something the nation collectively grieves before politics enters the conversation.”

But the same official defended the substance of Romney’s words: “Romney’s attack is spot-on — disgusting that the first Obama administration impulse was to apologize instead of condemning violent religious intolerance. Obama’s gotten a real pass on his intervention in Libya, his failed strategy in Afghanistan, and his lack of leadership in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. By trying to cut it down the middle in his foreign policy, no one knows where or for what Obama or America stands in the world these days.”

A top foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney on Wednesday repeated his charge that the Obama administration was at fault for “sympathizing” with the attackers of a U.S. consulate in Egypt and Libya, describing the president’s policies in the Middle East as a “disaster.”

Speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday night, Dan Sentor said: “As it relates to events over the last couple of days, you know, just a reminder, Wolf, of the chaos that a lot of the policies of this administration have showed. Chaos in the Arab Spring. Chaos where allies in Israel feel they can’t rely on us. You saw the flare up with Israel and the president.” He added, “Do you think the president’s policy in the Middle East has been a success? It looks like a disaster to most Americans.”

Sentor also criticized the administration for any “breakdown in communication” between the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The administration was forced to distance itself from a statement made independently by the embassy on Tuesday night:

Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East and the Arab world. Our embassy there is one of the largest in the world, certainly the largest in the region. The embassy in Cairo works very closely with our State Department. If there was a breakdown in communication between the State Department and the embassy, that’s certainly disappointing and adds to mixed messages. That was not corrected until very late last night, and to be clear, just what a breakdown in communication there must have been then, because the embassy reissued the statement in social media networks after the violence.

There are ironic similarities between today and the days before the presidential election of 1980. Jimmy Carter’s flawed belief that Muslim clerics such as the Ayatollah Khomeini operated by the same set of principles as his U.S. counterparts opened the door for militants in Iran to make a mockery of the United States as it paraded U.S. citizens held captive before the world. Carter’s tacit support of Khomeini helped facilitate his return to power in Iran and the birth of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed April 1, 1979, as the “first day of God’s government”.

What followed was a failed attempt to rescue the hostages held in Iran. Contrary to modern pundits on both side of the aisle, politics or no, it was not the time for measured responses. Ronald Reagan relentlessly pounded the Carter administration for its inept and misguided handling of Middle Eastern policy. As little as two months before the election, Carter led in every poll. The rest, as they say, is history.

Even Senator John McCain, who will never be accused of being far right, calls President Obama’s approach to foreign policy “feckless.” His contention is that the president’s foreign policy is irresponsible with no cohesive plan, is spot on. McCain said Thursday on NBC’s The Today Show that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was fresh evidence of “a belief in the Middle East that the United States is withdrawing” from the world.

All the while, our only true ally in the region, Israel, continues to get the cold shoulder from the president. Events during Arab Spring are hailed as the coming for democracy to the region. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt is touted as the next best thing to the American Revolution. And a president skips half of the daily intelligence meetings held in the White House.

One Washington insider put it this way to the Washington Post: “Process tells you something about an administration. How a president structures his regular morning meeting on intelligence and national security is one way to measure his personal approach to foreign policy.”

From this writer’s viewpoint, Mitt Romney may have played a political card for ten minutes, but the Chief Executive and Commander in Chief of this land has been doing so for four years.

 

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