The recent murders of four American patriots — U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other American officials — were used in this way. Instead of being seized as an opportunity to unite the country, their deaths were used to make a divisive argument about the strength of President Obama’s Middle East policy.
It’s hard to believe, but one advisor to presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney — Richard Williamson — even implied that Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues would be alive today if only Gov. Romney had been president. Specifically, he told The Washington Post, “There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation. … For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we’ve had an American ambassador assassinated.”
Our democracy is at its strongest when we argue the important issues of the day. And we should have a policy debate about how best to operate in the Middle East. Yet unfortunately, what we just witnessed regarding the unrest in the Arab world and these murders was not such a debate. Instead, it was a shameful attempt to gain partisan advantage in the presidential contest out of a national tragedy.
Yet while Williamson pointed his finger at President Obama for apparently being responsible for the murderous actions of terrorists in Libya, former Pennsylvania congressman and Iraq war veteran Patrick Murphy responded by saying, “I would never contend that terrorists attacked U.S. diplomatic compounds in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Greece, Serbia, Turkey and Yemen because Richard Williamson advised and supported President George W. Bush’s American foreign policy leading up to those attacks. I would never lay blame for the murders of American diplomats in Sudan and Jordan, in 2008, at the feet of Richard Williamson, even though it was policies that he backed, and is advising Mitt Romney to back, which were in place at the time of those murders.”
Nonetheless, neoconservative Washington Post columnist and Iraq-war cheerleader Charles Krauthammer further inflamed the rhetoric by saying that the Obama administration was somehow apologizing for America. “Why is [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] engaging in a disquisition on free speech with the mob? The implication here is that perhaps the mob is right, that we ought to be suppressing anything that offends Islam.” Krauthammer’s own employer, The Washington Post, debunked that statement in an editorial. “Mr. Romney claimed that the administration had delivered ‘an apology for America’s values.’ In fact, it had done no such thing.”
Fortunately, cooler heads are out there, such as former Bush administration Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who said that Romney “… will find out that first reports from the battlefield are always incorrect,” adding, “This should be his mantra, so he can speak in a deliberate manner, and not have to repent at his leisure later.” Following up this wisdom was conservative Washington Post columnist George Will, who clarified that a Romney presidency would not have prevented the recent unrest in the Middle East.
The sad irony of this whole episode is that Chris Stevens himself was a perfect example of America’s powerful yet subtle policies for a rapidly changing Middle East.
Chris was a friend of mine. I first met him when he served as a congressional fellow in the U.S. Senate working for the Foreign Relations Committee. He was a career Foreign Service officer and a former Peace Corps volunteer, meaning that he lived his life promoting American values and ideals around the world. It was clear that those values infused his every move. I was a Democratic Senate staffer and Chris worked for a Republican member. He wasn’t partisan; he worked across the aisle; he was professional and kind. And above all, he was friendly. Everyone liked working with Chris.
While critics of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy mock the idea that America should have an outstretched hand toward the Middle East — including rejecting hate speech such as the Islamophobic video that caused such a fury in the region — it was Chris himself who best personified this approach.
And it was an approach based in a firm American resolve to advance our country’s interests in a volatile yet strategically essential region. Resolve is not about indiscriminately bombing first and then asking the tough questions later, as we unfortunately did in Iraq. And it is not about either blaming America for the actions of foreign terrorists or endorsing offensive language, even as we applaud the right to speak.
Resolve is about understanding facts, promoting our values with confidence, and the proper application of force. President Obama understands this, as demonstrated by his successful decision to order the raid against Osama bin-Laden.
So let us remember that, just like the Libyans who today denounce the killing of Ambassador Stevens, there are those in the new Arab world who we can work with to build a better future. That is what Chris and his fallen colleagues were trying to do. And rather than dishonoring their memory by seeking narrow political gain through unconvincing finger pointing, we should instead honor their memory by working to unite all Americans for the challenging days ahead.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)