via Lobe Log

News and views relevant to US foreign policy for Sept. 12

U.S. ambassador to Libya killed in Benghazi attack: Reuters reports that the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed yesterday along with three of his staff when protestors and heavily-armed Islamist militiamen stormed the embassy compound and a safehouse in the coastal city of Benghazi.

The attack, which occurred shortly after the US embassy in Cairo was stormed by a mob, was ostensibly staged over an anti-Islamic film that has been publicized in the US. It is also possible that the demonstration in Benghazi over the film served as “cover” for a pre-planned assault on the compound:

The attack was believed to have been carried out by Ansar al-Sharia, an al Qaeda-style Sunni Islamist group that has been active in Benghazi, a Libyan security official said. Witnesses said the mob also included tribesmen, militia and other gunmen.

The Islamist militia denied it had taken part in the assault on the compound, which AFP suggests was strangely well-coordinated given the fact that the film cited as the reason for the demonstration had not been publicized for very long. Unknown persons set up a firebase in a nearby farm to support the men who breached the walls and set fire to the buildings:

Ansar al-Sharia cars arrived at the start of the protest but left once fighting started, Hamam said. “The protesters were running around the compound just looking for Americans, they just wanted to find an American so they could catch one.”

U.S. Suspects Libya Attack Was Planned: The New York Times reports that the Obama Administration has reason to believe the attack in Libya was preplanned – it is not clear if the assault in Egypt is also being investigated for premeditated actions – by al Qaeda sympathizers. The US announced it was pursuing an investigation but had no firm evidence yet:

If it were established that the deaths of the American diplomats resulted not from the spontaneous anger of a crowd about an insult to Islam but from a long-planned Qaeda plot, that might sharply shift perceptions of the events. But officials cautioned that the issue was still under urgent study.

The White House would not comment. “At this stage, it would be premature to ascribe any motive to this reprehensible act,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman.

But according to comments reported by the Christian Science Monitor, Libya’s Deputy Minister of the Interior Wanis al-Sharif has suggested that there was a link between the attack and the announcement yesterday –posted on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 by al Qaeda’s official As-Sahab news outlet – that Ayman al-Zawahri’s deputy, the Libyan national Abu Yahya al-Libi, was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan.

Al-Zawahri, the Associated Press reports, “urged Libyans — al-Libi was born in the north African country — to attack Americans to avenge the late militant’s death, saying his ‘blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the Crusaders.’”

The Deputy Minister of the Interior has subsequently blamed the American government for not taking precautions over this announcement. The US government has yet to respond to this apparent attempt by al-Sharif to deflect blame for the attack’s successful penetration of the embassy grounds after the outnumbered and outgunned Libyan guards stationed there abandoned their posts.

Romney Campaign Denies Acting Rashly on Libyan Situation: The National Journal reports that the Republican Party is deflecting criticism from both parties over their presidential nominee’s assertions that Obama was “sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions.”

Romney’s comments referred to a statement, now since walked back, by the US embassy in Cairo condemning the anti-Islamic film for inciting hate. The statement was released shortly before a mob converged on the compound and scaled the wall, but at a press conference in Jacksonville, Florida, Mitt Romney painted the embassy’s statement as a response to the attack after it happened rather than to the film before the protest took place.

Ben Smith reports that in addition to cited condemnations coming from Democrats, Republican foreign policy experts have voiced dismay over Romney making his remarks before more reports were available to judge what had happened in Cairo.

But the campaign has hit back on the criticism of its actions, with Romney not retracting his initial remarks and instead telling reporters that “it’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.”

Statements published by Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post – whose editorial board strongly criticized Romney’s remarks – show that several of Romney’s hawkish advisors, most notably former UN ambassador John Bolton, are rallying to his defense and blaming the media for mischaracterizing their candidate’s remarks.

And according to the National Journal, other “senior Romney advisers, who would not speak on the record,” are practicing damage control by presenting the remarks as part of:

“[t]he larger point of Romney’s statement, which accused the administration of initially siding with protesters in Cairo, was that Obama is misreading the violent underbelly of the Arab Spring and jeopardizing U.S. interests in the region.

“This was a story that was building the entire day,” a senior Romney official said of the developments that took place late on Tuesday and into Wednesday morning. …. [a]nd the statement was about the consistent failure of this administration to engage constructively with the aftermath of the Arab Spring.”