When the American Embassy in Cairo and the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, came under attack on Tuesday, the question soon followed: Was it a coincidence the date was Sept. 11, as Americans recalled the ghastly strikes of 11 years ago? Or was it planned?
As reporters, analysts and others began to pull together the pieces of the events, a suspicion grew that each may have been different. The mob that gathered in the Egyptian capital expressed its fury about an anti-Islam video produced in the United States. It stormed the embassy, yet it was unarmed. In Benghazi, the protesters proved a different caliber, equipped with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The consulate approached a war zone, the American ambassador and three other diplomats killed in the attack.
Was the seemingly spontaneous protest in Benghazi really cover for a coordinated strike? The New York Times noted on Wednesday a recent posting by al-Qaida urging retaliation for an American drone attack in June that killed one of the terrorist organization’s leaders in Libya.
What Americans have learned the past decade is the need to respond with precision, militarily and diplomatically. Both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, conveyed controlled fury at the killings. They also pointed to the complexities, this country aiding the Arab Spring yet still having to contend with echoes of anti-American feelings, stemming from long support of repressive regimes in the region.
So it made sense that Americans facing the mob in Cairo issued a statement that signaled an understanding of what triggered the protests. That statement may have reflected fear. It certainly attempted to bring calm, the message similar to that issued by the Bush White House when protests followed Danish cartoons mocking Islam. What shouldn’t be missed is that the statement was released long before the attack and the killings in Benghazi.
Unfortunately, Mitt Romney chose to ignore the distinction. In a statement, the Republican presidential candidate expressed outrage at the attacks and the death of an American consulate worker. He then cudgeled the White House for a “first response” that did not condemn but showed sympathy “with those who waged the attacks.”
The idea of any American president, Republican or Democratic, taking such a stance is ludicrous. As it is, Romney strained in grabbing the moment to press a familiar campaign theme.
Now is the time for considered action, alert to the possibility of something planned, perhaps by Libyan extremists unhappy with the rise of reasoned voices. Such a course reflects the work of Christopher Stevens, who as ambassador did so much to enhance the American image in a new Libya. That doesn’t preclude a targeted drone strike against those responsible for the killings. It does leave room for recognizing the difficult terrain in Libya and across the Arab world.