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Attack In Libya Threatens To Upset U.S. Ties

Sep 12, 2012
Originally published on September 13, 2012 7:31 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, we are covering this morning's statements by President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, all having to do with the attacks yesterday in Egypt, and particularly in Libya where consulate was attacked in Benghazi. And we now know that four Americans were killed including the United States Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, who was well-known in Libya, well-liked in Libya, and had just been appointed to that position, the ambassadorship, earlier this year.

NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving has been listening along with us. And, Ron, as you listened to the statements this morning, what has struck your ear?

RON ELVING, BYLINE: What strikes me is a departure from the historic or traditional reticence that candidates had to criticize a sitting president, even while running against that sitting president, on matters of this kind in the moment. Obviously, there are going to be differences between the candidates about foreign policy. As Governor Romney said a number of times, you would expect us to differ on foreign policy and we do. But there has been, traditionally, a bit more reticence on the part of people who are not in the government to criticize the government. And, you know, the old statement was: Politics ends at the water's edge.

INSKEEP: You would normally expect a candidate to come out and make a statement supporting the country or supporting the president. And that if there was any criticism to be done, it would be done by his aides or by his surrogates at a later time, you would expect.

ELVING: There would be a condemnation of the attacks themselves by the candidate. There would be a statement that all Americans stand together in condemning these attacks. There would be grief for the fallen. And yet, in this particular instance, we had a statement late last night before many of the facts were in. And that statement seemed to be a bit premature at the time, so the reporters were eager to give Governor Romney an opportunity to say, well that was before we had heard Ambassador had been killed, and we now want to focus on that element of the story.

INSKEEP: Renee Montagne, listening at NPR West. Renee.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Yes. And, you know, just to add to what you're saying, Ron, and this is actually a question for Mara. This is obviously a very serious event, but how heated up it could become is suggested by a question that the president did not answer. He gave a statement. He took no questions. But you barely heard it, the first question he was asked if: Is this an act of war.

Mara, you know, this is something they're going to be contending with.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I think that's an interesting question. I don't know the administration's answer, but I would be very confident in saying they do not see this as an act of war. The Secretary of State was pretty clear when she said this was an attack by small and savage group. It was not the people or the government of Libya. As a matter of fact, you know, she said as the president did that the Libyans stood and fought, they defended our post. They took the Ambassador's body to the hospital.

I think that once you breach previous decorum on these things, as Ron was talking about - I mean guess it's up to the Romney campaign to say that this is an act of war and that the administration should respond in a different way. I think Mitt Romney really opens up a can of worms. I mean he's decided to focus his entire comments on the response in this particular statement from the embassy in Egypt.

And we'll see if he wants to go any further, but he certainly was given plenty of opportunities to retreat to the previous kind of nonpartisan or bipartisan ground that candidates have stood on, when it comes to attacks on American personnel overseas during a presidential campaign. And he chose not to.

MONTAGNE: Well...

INSKEEP: Go ahead, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This may be for Ron here. Does it give the president any support that he would like to have, in the sense that, you know, polls have shown that he has the trust of the American people in his foreign policy, you know, in approaching what to do next?

ELVING: Heretofore, that has been one of the strengths that he had in comparison to his opponent. The weaknesses, of course, had to do with domestic policy and economics and healthcare, and things of that nature where he didn't poll as well. But on national security, the polls have shown some margin of support for the president over Mitt Romney.

INSKEEP: Well, let's go to Ari Shapiro was traveling with the Romney campaign and see if we can understand a little better the Romney campaign's point of view. Ari, I did note in Mitt Romney's statement, in taking questions from reporters, he referred to an administration apologizing for America. We have to note, factually again, there was no actual apology given, regardless of when the embassy statement was made, yesterday, condemning this film.

But in any case, why did that Romney camp find it important on this issue to strike a contrast with the administration?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, it's just not this issue on foreign policy. Generally, the Romney campaign has been trying hard to draw contrasts with the Obama administration, giving a speech just yesterday in Reno to the National Guard convention, before that to the American Legion in Indiana. As Ron said, national security and foreign policy is an area where Republicans have traditionally held the lead over Democrats. But in this election that's not the case.

So Romney is trying to show, as he put it, you know, he said we have a campaign for presidency of the United States and are speaking about the different courses we would each take with regards to the world's challenges.

Taking a partisan political tone even on this day when other Republican leaders who are not running for president - Senator Mitch McConnell, House speaker John Boehner, and so on - called for unity and solidarity in the face of these attacks.

INSKEEP: Democrats have had, from their perspective, some good days though. Is this an opportunity for Romney to grab the initiative back again?

SHAPIRO: Romney is sticking to his guns. His campaign clearly thinks that going on the offensive is the right approach, in light of this - even though they've been criticized for perhaps speaking prematurely when they issued this statement last night before of all the facts were in; when there was violence in Egypt and in Libya. They think that staying by their position on this and attacking the president is the way to go, and that it will help them today. And we'll see whether that turns out to be true or not.

MONTAGNE: And, Ari, I'm wondering, I'm wondering - Romney was asked this morning - that Romney was asked this morning, or last night, what he would do if he was president - specifically. Did he answer?

SHAPIRO: Well, so here's his answer. He said - when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued this statement, which Romney described as an apology, even though it was not technically an apology, he said I would have spoken out against that. That's a mistake. I believe when there is a mistake of that significance you speak out. But he kept his answer limited to that. Beyond that, he didn't go into detail about how he would have handled this differently.

INSKEEP: OK, so we have statements this morning from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, from President Obama, also from Republican, Mitt Romney, today. Romney arguing that Obama has - the administration at least has misspoken mishandled this tragedy in Libya and in Egypt in the last 24 hours.

Let's just recap the news here. The president vowed - he said that justice will be done for the deaths of Americans in Libya, where attackers struck the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi; killed four Americans. We do not know two of the names. We do know that one was a State Department employee Sean Smith. And another was United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens who had been the U.S. envoy to Libyan rebels during the war against Moammar Gadhafi, and went on to become the United States Ambassador to the New Libyan Government.

President Obama describing the ambassador as a man who died in a city that he helped to save.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.