For a week various Obama administration figures, including the White House press secretary, have insisted that the attacks on U..S. embassies in the Middle East were a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video. But that excuse has not held up to even superficial scrutiny.

The public certainly senses something is not right. Unlike the media, which is entirely obsessed with Mitt Romney’s remarks about the attacks, the public is troubled by President Obama’s handling or lack of handling of the crisis. The pictures of dead Americans and burned embassies strike a cord with Americans. So it is not surprising that Obama is down five points on handling of foreign policy and 12 points among independents, according to the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC poll. It may get worse as the Obama administration’s story about the embassy attacks changes dramatically.

As Michael Singh writes in Foreign Policy:

While the video in question may have catalyzed these protests, it cannot accurately be described as the cause of them. In any event, any effort to quash future provocations of this sort is bound to be futile — given the ease by which such media can now be produced and distributed — as well as profoundly contrary to the American belief in the right to free expression.

The current unrest is not in fact a result of a single offensive video, but is rather a continuation and outgrowth of the Arab uprisings of 2011. Those revolutions were the result of deep-seated political and economic grievances that had been decades in the making: the absence of economic prosperity or the hope of individual advancement, paired with the inability to do anything about it as a result of the simultaneous absence of political rights.

That observation is so self-evident to knowledgable foreign policy analysts that the administration’s “the movie did it” argument has become frivolous.

So the administration has begun to beat a hasty retreat from its insistence that these attacks had nothing to do with Islamic extremism or with Obama administration policy. From the Sate Department briefing, with spokesperson Victoria Nuland, we got this exchange Tuesday:

QUESTION:Today, there was a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, which — the group that claims to have carried it out also linked to the video . . . I wonder, in the light of the fact that perhaps these protests are now going to spread beyond just Americans and perhaps foreigners in general, what your consultations are with other governments who might be struggling to warn their workers and come up with the appropriate response to this.
MS. NULAND: Yeah. Well, as you can imagine, Jo, we’re consulting with a very broad range of countries about the response to this video — not just ones where our embassies and consulates and missions have been affected, but around the world and encouraging leaders — whether they’re government leaders, religious leaders — to speak out strongly along the lines that the Secretary and the President have, that we can all condemn this reprehensible video, but it should never be an excuse for violence. . . .

What I can’t confirm, Jo, was the motivation for this. And we are seeing, whether it is the recent calls by Hezbollah for people to go out into the streets, some of the things we’ve seen on al-Qaida sites, we’re seeing a lot of piling on. We’re seeing a lot of extremist activity trying to exploit the sentiments from this video to gin up folks to violence and try to use that as an excuse for things that might otherwise have been planned, for their otherwise rejectionist agendas. So that’s very concerning, this sort of spoiler, pile-on agenda that’s happening now.

So why were high-level officials and the president’s spokesman saying something very different, with great certainty, for a week? Maybe they are just making it up as they go along.

Meanwhile White House press secretary Jay Carney, who was most insistent about the cause of the attacks last Friday also turned tail:

Q: Can I ask one more question, just on a different topic? It seems that the U.S. and Libya have sort of different accounts of the attack in Benghazi last week. There are reports that Libyan officials warned the U.S. of the growing extremist threat prior to the attacks, that they admitted they could not control some of these militias. That seems to run counter to what administration officials have been saying, that this was just a spontaneous reaction to this anti-Islam film. Can you kind of reconcile this?

MR. CARNEY: Well, what I can tell you is that we have provided information about what we believe was the precipitating cause of the protest and the violence, based on the information that we have had available. There is an ongoing investigation. The FBI is investigating. And that investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead.

What we do know about Libya is that it’s a country that emerged from war and revolution, and you have a new government trying to assert its authority as that country makes a transition to democracy and broader representation for all Libyans and broader rights for all Libyans. And in that environment there are certainly, in this postwar, post-revolution environment, there are vast numbers of weapons and certainly a number of violent groups in the country.

What is important to note, however, is that the Libyan people do not understand — or rather they do understand that the United States was with them in their efforts to achieve their aspirations, to rid them of the Qaddafi regime and the tyranny that Qaddafi inflicted upon them. But it is still a very volatile place, there’s no question about it.

I’m not sure what that even means. But in any case, the administration, perhaps recognizing their cover story on the attacks was blown, is now backpedaling fast.

There is all the more reason now to get to the bottom of this, to hold hearings and for the president himself to answer questions. If it is now conceded that this was more than a spontaneous uprising the questions remain: Was there an intelligence failure? And is the president’s purported Middle East policy a flop?