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Robert Bennett: Lessons learned from embassy attack

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - This July 27, 2011 image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, provided by IntelCenter, shows al-Qaida'a new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Egyptian cleric took over the organization after Osama bin Laden's killing last year by U.S. Navy SEALs. Presumed hiding in Pakistan, Zawahiri has released a near-record number of propaganda videos since the bin Laden raid, exhorting followers to violence.

IntelCenter, File) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS HAS NO WAY OF INDEPENDENTLY VERIFYING THE CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS PICTURE., Associated Press

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One lesson that both campaigns can take from last week's 9/11 attacks in Libya, where the U. S. Ambassador was killed, and Egypt, where the U. S. Embassy was stormed, is, "Wait for the facts before speaking out."

Mitt Romney was very aggressive very early. He called the statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo an unacceptable response to the Egyptian demonstrations, only to discover later that the statement came out before the demonstrations began. "Oops." Joining a chorus of media voices expressing outrage — one called the incident "the death knell of the Romney campaign" — Obama fired back hard, painting Romney as unfit to discuss foreign policy matters.

Then Team Obama had an "Oops" of its own. As attention was paid to the substance of the statement Romney had criticized, the administration distanced itself from it, telling a reporter that "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government." The resulting headline — "Obama administration disavows Cairo apology" — gave Romney a wee bit of cover. A furious series of back and forth blasts between the two campaigns followed.

Administration officials announced that they had found the real culprit behind the attacks: Terry Jones, an American with far-right views — hint, hint, probably a Romney supporter — who had made a trailer for a movie that deliberately insulted Islam. It had lingered unnoticed on YouTube for months until Jones dubbed it in Arabic and released it to Arabian television, where it went viral.

President Obama said, "We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts."

That positioned Obama on the high moral ground, but it, too, may be a premature judgment, another "Oops."

Writing for the respected website "Realclearpolitics," Debra Saunders reports, "Now it seems the critics may have jumped the gun. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri [who assumed command after Osama bin Laden's death] had released a video calling on Islamists to avenge the death of a Libyan-born cleric killed in a U.S. drone attack. Intelligence officials believe the Benghazi attack was planned well in advance. Maybe it's not a coincidence that mobs attacked two U.S. delegations on the same day. And isn't it time that the experts asked whether al-Qaida sympathizers were looking for an excuse for a 9/11 rampage? So why give them cover by blaming crazy talkers such as Terry Jones?"

This scenario gains support from the fact that an al-Qiada offshoot has been identified as the force behind the demonstrations. The idea that they were responding to the call for vengeance from al-Zawahiri and planned the demonstrations long before 9/11 is more plausible than the notion that Terry Jones' YouTube movies created spontaneous combustion.

Rhetoric aside, the lessons we should take from these horrific events are two. First, al-Qiada and its sympathizers are still there and still dangerous; second, Arab Spring has not brought stability to Arab countries. Those whom we have been fighting are still after us, and those whose revolutions we have supported are currently of little help to us.

The latter fact is not surprising. Revolutions are messy. All of them, including ours, have been followed by periods of turmoil, which can lead to bloodshed. The French Revolution morphed into the Terror, followed by the dictatorship of Napoleon; the Russian Revolution triggered civil war, followed by the dictatorship of Lenin. Arab Spring notwithstanding, the Middle East will remain a dangerous neighborhood for either Romney or Obama.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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