On the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, radical Islamists breached the walls of the U.S. embassy compound in Cairo, tore the American flag to shreds, and replaced it with the black flag preferred by al Qaeda, which reads, “There is No God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
The embassy had been warned of protests in advance. Much of the staff was told to stay home. The pretext for the protest was a YouTube video promoting an obscure film, The Innocence of Muslims, that mocks the prophet Muhammad. Larry Schwartz, a communications specialist in the embassy, released a statement before the protesters had assembled, intended to assuage their anger.
It read, in its entirety:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
That statement was the official position of the U.S. government for more than 12 hours. In a midday briefing, a State Department spokeswoman acknowledged that the embassy walls had been breached but said nothing about the statement. At 10:10 p.m. that evening, an Obama administration official told Politico that “the statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.”
Which part of the statement did not reflect the views of the U.S. government? The next day, a U.S. official explained the objections to Foreign Policy reporter Josh Rogin. “The statement was just tone deaf. It didn’t provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.’ ”
That made sense. The language was soft. It projected weakness. And it elevated this obscure video by taking seriously the preposterous claims that the Islamists who gathered outside the embassy to protest, as they have done for months, were there primarily because of a movie most of them probably hadn’t seen.
Beyond the substance was politics. Mitt Romney’s campaign had criticized the embassy statement as “disgraceful” in the way it had “sympathize[d] with those who waged the attacks.” So there were many reasons the president’s advisers sought to distance him from the embassy statement.
But in one of the strangest turns of a remarkable week in American diplomacy and politics, just as the White House and the Obama campaign were distancing the president from the problematic language, the Obama administration seized on the film and the hurt feelings of Muslims to explain the growing number of anti-American protests around the world. The subsequent statements often included a condemnation of all kinds of violence and sometimes a few words in defense of free speech. But of paramount concern was the religious sensitivities of radical Islamists and the offensiveness of the video.
In her statement Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton said: “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” On Wednesday, President Obama condemned “all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
By Friday, as the violent protests spread to more than a dozen countries in the Middle East and beyond, Clinton said: “We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with.” White House press secretary Jay Carney also fixed blame on the film and even suggested that the date of the protests, 9/11, was merely coincidental. “The unrest we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that many Muslims find offensive. And while the violence is reprehensible and unjustified, it is not a reaction to the 9/11 anniversary that we know of—or to U.S. policy.”
In the space of three days, then, the administration had gone from seeking to distance the president from the embassy’s statement to embracing the heart of that message. And then it went further. The White House asked YouTube to review its policies to determine whether the offensive video might qualify for removal from the website. It didn’t.
In retrospect, the administration’s effort to hide behind the film should not be surprising.
Barack Obama campaigned as a leader who would bring respect to the United States from the Muslim world by the very fact of his presidency. He said his background—his experience growing up in Indonesia and traveling in Pakistan during college—gave him special insight into the way Muslims see the world.
Candidate Obama contrasted his foreign policy posture with that of the Bush administration by promising to bring a more conciliatory approach to America’s challenges in the region and to resolve our problems with “smart diplomacy.” As president he would renew American leadership in the world with a more humble approach—“leading from behind,” one of his advisers would famously call it.
These were the ideas that animated the Obama Doctrine. Just a few days before, the president had pointed to his approach as a reason for voters to keep him in office. “In a world of new threats and new challenges,” he said, “you can choose leadership that has been tested and proven.”
Tested and proven—to fail.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.