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Attack, protests raise concerns about anti-U.S. moves in Libya, Egypt

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2012 - WASHINGTON – The fatal attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya and the flag-burning demonstration at the embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11 have heightened concerns about anti-American trends in Arab Spring nations.

“As Libya and Egypt have changed, we’re dealing in a much different atmosphere,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

And the ensuing debate in this country about how best to respond to such provocations – with the Libyan terror attack demanding a different response than the Egyptian protest – has politicized a national security issue at a sensitive time.

On Wednesday, as reports circulated that a terrorist group may have planned the Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats, President Barack Obama denounced the violence and ordered a Marine anti-terrorist security team to Libya to bolster security and help investigate the attack.

“Make no mistake: Justice will be done,” Obama said. “The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack.”

But GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and some other Republicans criticized Obama for failing to lead a clearer U.S. response to the attack and protests. Other GOP leaders declined to take issue with the administration.

“American leadership is necessary to ensure that events in the region don’t spin out of control,” Romney said. While he said there were positive aspects to the Arab Spring uprisings, Romney warned that in some cases they pose “potential for peril, if the forces of extremism and violence are allowed to control the course of events.”

In a move criticized by many Democrats, Romney had issued a statement late Tuesday taking issue with the U.S. Embassy-Cairo’s initial response to the protests. The GOP nominee had interpreted it as expressing sympathy with demonstrators who objected to the depiction of Islam in an obscure film.

Early Tuesday, the U.S. embassy in Cairo had released a statement criticizing the film that depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a derogatory way. The statement, posted on Twitter, originally said:

"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."

But after Egyptian demonstrators scaled the embassy's outside wall and tore down a U.S. flag, the embassy's original Tweet was deleted and replaced with: "This morning's condemnation still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the embassy."

Romney’s critique brought a sharp response from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who told reporters Wednesday that “when you're dealing with the tinder box of the Middle East and the implications it has for the security and safety of Americans, it's really important to get all the facts before you say anything” about U.S policy.

“I think the [Romney] campaign was more worried about scoring political points that they were on focusing on what would show strength, wisdom and sure-footedness when it comes to handling the very difficult job of navigating a very dangerous neighborhood,” McCaskill added.

But Blunt defended Romney, telling journalists that the Cairo embassy’s initial statement was “a serious issue” and represented “a ridiculous position for us to take. Apologizing for America is not the way that you’re going to advance your cause anywhere, particularly in the Middle East.”

Also defending Romney's stance was former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, a senior Romney adviser on security and foreign policy. “In something like this, the appropriate thing to do is to recognize the human tragedy involved and then raise [criticism] in a constructive way,” Talent told Politico.

"The Arab Spring is an opportunity, but it also presents certain risks . And now what we want to do is lead strongly so we can influence events in a constructive direction," said Talent. He added that Romney "made the point that the Obama administration has failed to do that in a number of areas, and that has left a vacuum.” 

After he heard about his opponent's criticism, Obama told CBS News that "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later." The president added that "one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that ... it’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts, and that you’ve thought through the ramifications."

But Blunt said he would have appreciated more forethought in securing the U.S. consulate and embassy. Asked about Obama's decision to send the Marine anti-terrorist unit to Libya, Blunt said it was “better late than never. But it would have been better if it had been more timely – and we would have had more of an appropriate preparation for these events in both Cairo and Benghazi.”

Other members of the region’s congressional delegations issued more general comments. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Senate Democrat and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he condemned “in the strongest way possible the violence that took their lives and the protests at our Embassy in Egypt.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who had visited Libya with a congressional delegation in September 2011, said in a statement that “America has lost one of its most able diplomats in Ambassador Chris Stevens and his murderers must be brought to justice.”

Kirk added: “As we continue to learn the details of the attacks on Americans in our diplomatic posts in Libya and Egypt, my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families who have sacrificed to protect our national interests.”

McCaskill's GOP opponent for Senate, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, said the attacks “serve to remind us of the sacrifice of those in service overseas. This senseless attack and murder underscores the irrational hatred that some still harbor for our country and our citizens. Our heart and prayers go to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and for their friends and family.”

U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, said that “coinciding with the anniversary of 9/11, this apparently coordinated attack reminds us that we must remain ever vigilant against terrorism, and as President Obama has made clear, justice will be done."

And U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said the violence “should be condemned as unjustified and intolerable in true democracies. Attacks on American citizens and our interests abroad demonstrate both the lack of leadership and strength we now show in the Middle East and lack of cooperation from the governments of Egypt and Libya.”

Concern about Egyptian minorities, Libyan violence

While the political debate focused mainly on the immediate U.S. response to the protests and violence, academic experts expressed wider concerns about developments in Libya and Egypt that appear to threaten non-Muslim minorities and the stability of the region.

Morris Kalliny, an Egyptian-born assistant professor at Saint Louis University’s business school, said Wednesday that his travels in Egypt this summer over two months convinced him that there is a growing intolerance toward the Coptic Christian minority, which is officially 10 percent of the population – but probably is a higher percentage. Kalliny is a Coptic Christian.

“The number of attacks on Coptic Christians has increased,” said Kalliny. “The persecution is more out in the open, and the sense among [Coptic Christians] is that it is being endorsed by the government – if not directly, then indirectly.”

In an interview, Kalliny said some protesters had incorrectly blamed Coptic Christians abroad for producing an objectionable video ridiculing Islam's prophet, Mohammed – the prime target of demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday.

Kalliny's view was backed up by Eric Trager, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who told USA Today that some Islamist protesters had "pinned this video incorrectly on the Coptic (Christian) diaspora. They've used this video to advance sectarian tensions in Egypt.”

As for Libya, some members of Congress expressed concern that its government – which is not led by Islamist politicians – is not able to control volatile and heavily armed elements in the population that may have been involved in this week’s violence.

Fouad A. Ajami, a Lebanese-born expert on Muslim issues who is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, warned Wednesday on CNN that “it’s been a very violent year in Libya” since the fall of strongman Moammar Gadhafi. “And this incident was just a piece of that breakdown of law and order.”

“Libya is really, now, a very anarchic country. Remnants of the Gadhafi regime are still around, trying to make sure that this government – this new order – fails. And then there are these crazy Islamists who are very heavily armed. Awhile ago, the Interior Minister in Libya resigned after admitting that the Islamic militants – people who are really freelancers and just terrorists – are more armed than the forces of the government.”

Jo Mannies of the Beacon staff contributed to this story.