J.CHRISTOPHER STEVENS, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was a skilled and courageous diplomat who repeatedly placed himself at risk to support the cause of a democratic Libya. His death, along with those of three other Americans, during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday is a tragedy that should prompt bipartisan support for renewed U.S. aid to Libyans who are struggling to stabilize the country. That it instead provoked a series of crude political attacks on President Obama by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is a discredit to his campaign.
Mr. Romney’s first rhetorical assault came Tuesday night in response to a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, which was also besieged by demonstrators Tuesday. His statement claimed that the administration’s first response was “to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” In fact the embassy statement was issued before the protests began; referring to an ugly anti-Islam film that was the focus of demonstrators, it condemned “those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious belief of others.”
Mr. Romney did not then know the extent of the Benghazi incident — his statement referred only to “the death of an American consulate worker.” So it was stunning to see the GOP nominee renew his verbal offensive Wednesday morning, when the country was still absorbing the news of the first death in service of a U.S. ambassador since 1988. Though reports were still sketchy, it appeared that a militant jihadist group, Ansar al-Sharia, took advantage of the Benghazi protest to stage an armed assault that overwhelmed the Libyan security force at the consulate.
At a news conference, Mr. Romney claimed that the administration had delivered “an apology for America’s values.” In fact, it had done no such thing: Religious tolerance, as much as freedom of speech, is a core American value. The movie that provoked the protests, which mocks the prophet Muhammad and portrays Muslims as immoral and violent, is a despicable piece of bigotry; it was striking that Mr. Romney had nothing to say about such hatred directed at a major religious faith.
Mr. Obama struck the right tone on Wednesday, saying that “we reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others” but that “there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence.” Lauding Mr. Stevens’s service, the president promised “justice” for “this terrible act” while also committing the administration to continue cooperating with Libya’s democratic government — which apologized for the attack.
Since the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gaddafi last year, Libya has been plagued by armed groups that have refused to submit to the new government. Now the United States must press the government to take action against Ansar al-Sharia and other jihadist organizations that have established themselves in the eastern Libyan desert. Security assistance, which has been limited so far, ought to be stepped up, by the Obama administration and by other governments that joined last year’s NATO intervention.
As for Mr. Romney, he would do well to consider the example of Republican former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who issued a statement Wednesday lamenting “the tragic loss of life at our consulate,” praising Mr. Stevens as “a wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat” and offering “thoughts and prayers” to “all the loved ones of the fallen.” That was the appropriate response.