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13 September 2012

Follow-up on my “What’s the matter with our state department?” post

Updated. I’ve learned in the last 36 hours that the headline for my 11 September post should have been “What’s the matter with our embassy in Egypt?” That’s because an embassy public relations man gone rogue released — in defiance of direct orders from the state department — this statement (which was quoted in part in the Washington Post story that I quoted in part):

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.

When I uploaded my post to this website late Tuesday night, I knew that someone in our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had been killed, and that our embassy in Egypt had issued a statement that was, to be charitable, not the ringing defense of the First Amendment that we expect our emissaries abroad to make. An hour later, after Politico reported that the state department had disavowed the embassy’s statement, I updated my post with that information.

Now, a day and a half later, it’s clear that the PR guy in Cairo acted against instructions, no doubt hoping to damp the anger of protesters who were planning a demonstration later that day. I understand why he did what he did, but he did the wrong thing, a cowardly thing, and served his country poorly. We project neither strength nor wisdom when we qualify our support for free speech. I agree with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who on 12 September wrote:

Just as conservative Muslims have as a core principle the protection of the Prophet Muhammad and God from insult, we Americans have a core principle: Freedom of speech. As Stephen Marche has pointed out, (also in a tweet): “We fought for three hundred years for the right to blasphemy. We called that fight the enlightenment.”

I think that the only response of the U.S. government in these cases should be the following: “A private citizen has expressed a controversial view. If you disagree with that view, please take it up with him. The only responsibility the U.S. government has in these cases is to uphold the person’s right to free speech. Free speech is a sacred principle of our culture and civilization.” I think Neera, as an ex-Administration official, ought to say that, too. She obviously is a free speech advocate as well, but on the day after four Americans were murdered because someone else in America exercised his right to free speech, I think Americans ought to focus their attention on this heinous assault on freedom, and not on the content of an absurd YouTube video.

Shooting first and sorting out the bodies later

When John Kenneth Galbraith observed that “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof,” he could have been writing about Mitt Romney. Yesterday, Romney, who never misses a chance to chomp on his toes, denounced the embassy’s statement — and then, when it became clear that the statement was unauthorized and was not the position of our government, doubled down on his assertion that the statement was part of a plan by President Obama to apologize for America until there’s no America left to apologize for. For the Republican presidential nominee, it was a foot-in-mouth, brain-in-neutral, moment — President Obama said Romney fired before he aimed — — that raised serious doubts about his competence in a crisis.

Given what I’ve learned in the last 48 hours, I had to ask myself whether I should have waited until morning, when more information would have been available, to post my comments. There’s an argument for that, although waiting for more information, taken to an extreme, means never posting contemporaneous comments on current events. Getting all of the facts is not the same as getting right all of the facts one has, or the same as getting enough facts to write a defensible story. A blogger’s obligation to himself and to his readers is to keep blogging as events unfold and new information emerges, to change his mind when the facts warrent, and to be fair. That’s the standard to which I strive to hold myself.

In retrospect, I wish I had kept my fingers off my keyboard until morning, when I could have provided richer and more detailed comments, but I stand by my comments on the folly of trying to appease Islamic extremists.