The weak US economy was supposed to be the overriding theme of this year’s presidential election but the Libyans didn’t get the memo. The attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on the fateful date of September 11th, in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other staffers were killed, and the simultaneous siege of the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, by demonstrators, powerfully injected foreign policy back into the campaign season, casting a new shadow on America’s involvement in the Middle East and North Africa and proving a challenging test for both President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
It is too early to tell exactly what happened in Benghazi and Cairo this week, and, at the time of writing, intelligence reports and expert analyses remain vague and sometimes contradictory. Both episodes of violence were allegedly triggered by an online movie titled “Innocence of Muslims” and produced in the US, which mocks the prophet Mohammad and is seen as blasphemous and deeply insulting to the Muslim faith. In the hours since the attacks, questions surrounding the identity of the director (who was initially thought to be an Israeli-American real estate developer from California but now looks more likely to be an Egyptian Coptic Christian) and the provenance of the video have been multiplying. At the same time, evidence is mounting that, while the protest in Egypt might in fact have been just a spontaneous reaction to the film, the assault on the poorly defended consulate in Benghazi was at least partially planned by a militant group, even before the clips in question started making the rounds on the web.
In both cases, it is likely that, at one point or another, widespread anti-American sentiments and easily upset religious sensibilities were or will be exploited by a minority of fundamentalist Islamists jostling for power in today’s frenzied post-revolutionary environment.
In the United States, news of the Ambassador’s death – the first American envoy to be killed in the line of duty since 1979 – was greeted with consternation and outrage. Treating the event as an act of terrorism, the Obama administration offered a firm but restrained response. In remarks delivered in the Rose Garden of the White House, the President vigorously condemned the attacks, while making a point of distinguishing between the perpetrators, whom he promised will be brought to justice, and the fledgling Libyan government, which was quick to apologize for the incident. “This attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya,” Obama said.
Practically, the most likely outcome is, in Egypt, a hardened relationship between the US and the government of newly elected President Mohamed Morsi, who, according to the Americans, apologized for the assault on the embassy too little too late. And in Libya, new counterterrorism operations and stepped-up drone strikes (which have been reported as secretly ongoing for some time) against whomever will be identified as responsible.
More generally, the clashes in Benghazi and Cairo are yet another reminder of the US’s troubled standing across the Middle East and North Africa, even after four years in which the White House ended the American military engagement in Iraq, has begun withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and has, by and large, tried to improve relationships with the Muslim world. This is an ongoing challenge for President Obama, greatly compounded by the escalating tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.
Such a sudden eruption of violence against US officials also raises questions about the future of Washington’s involvement abroad. First of all, it is unlikely that what happened in Libya and Egypt will wet the Americans’ appetite for more intervention in the raging Syrian civil war and increase support for arming little known rebel groups (the US provided weapons and logistical assistance to the Libyan resistance during last year’s revolution.) Secondly, many people take issue with the fact that American diplomats, when posted to hostile regions, live in a bubble of highly guarded compounds, with little to no contact with local populations. After the Libyan incident, this is only bound to get worse. President Obama has already called for boosting security measures across US embassies and consulates around the world and the Pentagon has reportedly sent a team of elite marines to Libya to defend American personnel there.
Finally, it took all but a few minutes for events in North Africa to completely take over the campaign for the White House. In what many saw as a sign of desperation, Mitt Romney immediately proceeded to attack President Obama and his foreign policy, which conservatives have long considered too apologetic to radicals and enemies of the US “I believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt,” the Republican candidate said in a press conference during a campaign stop in Florida. Romney was referring to a statement and a series of tweets criticizing the controversial anti-Islam movie that the US Embassy in Cairo had sent out in order to try and assuage protesters when they started feeling endangered. “I think it is a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” Romney later added in response to a reporter’s question.
Having trailed Obama for almost the entirety of the campaign, and emerging from a Republican Party convention that gave him almost no bounce in the polls (while the President came out of the DNC much stronger,) Romney basically took a chance to see if he can turn things around. But it was a very risky bet, to criticize the President of the United States at a time of national mourning and when Americans are suddenly feeling threatened from abroad, one that made him look too eager and not-so-presidential himself.
This choice by the Romney camp, however, indicates that it thinks criticizing Obama for his record on the economy might no longer be enough to beat him in November.