What Happened in Embassy Cairo?
Friday, September 14th 2012
The dust thrown up by the events of September 11 in Egypt and Libya may never completely settle. Issues more important than public diplomacy beg for attention in the Muslim world. But looking at events this week at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, at least a few things seem clear through the public diplomacy lens:
- Something is significantly amiss when---as, we’re told, in this case---a field post proposes to say something publicly, Washington nixes the idea, and the post goes ahead with it anyway. To be sure, specific situations do arise when judgment in the field should trump second-guessing back home. Given the seriousness and sensitivities of the moment, however, this one did not meet that definition.
- Still, as far as it went, the statement issued that night by the Cairo embassy, criticizing an anti-Muslim video clip, had little or nothing to be faulted on.
- We can, however, wonder about its necessity. Even under the pressure of what appeared to be an imminent attack, no truly sound reason compelled the embassy to speak out when it did. Everything it said found eloquent reflection and support just a few hours later in the points made so effectively by Hillary Clinton.
Let’s examine this a little more closely. As published, the embassy’s brief text condemns efforts by the ‘‘misguided’’ people responsible for the video to damage “the religious feelings of Muslims--as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” It points out that respect for religious beliefs is fundamental to American democracy and rejected actions that “abuse the universal right of free speech” to attack the religious views of anyone. And it refers to the anniversary of 9/11, when Americans honor those who serve the country in proper response “to the enemies of democracy.” That’s the total content of the statement.
In two public appearances within the ensuing 24 hours or so, Mrs. Clinton voiced the very same thoughts, if at greater length, her television image conveying the strength and conviction with which she spoke. Just hours after the attack on the Cairo embassy, she scorned the “content and message” of the video. She noted that the American commitment to religious tolerance dates from the country’s beginnings. Then, next day she, too, mentioned 9/11 in the same context. And she added that no justification whatever exists “for responding to this video with violence.”
As noted, much broader considerations envelop this little episode. It remains far from clear, for example, what motivation, or motivations, lay behind the attacks on American missions in Egypt and Libya and the demonstrations and protests that have followed in other countries of the region against American and other diplomatic posts. The infamous video apparently existed well before its widely viewed posting; possibly it only provided convenient extra fuel to what may really have been long-planned events on the anniversary of 9/11. And the nature and timing of the Egyptian government’s response to the attack on the embassy raises some worrisome doubts.
Even if the U.S. government could somehow physically prevent intemperate outbursts like the video, as Mrs. Clinton did not fail to point out, “we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be.” British writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall once put this idea more vividly: “ I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Those words frame a basic concept of democracy. They speak to a key strength---free speech---that should also frame every effort by American public diplomacy to show how and why this country tries to live up to its founding principles.
Beyond that, what happened in Cairo this week, and Washington’s reaction, pose some more specific public diplomacy questions for all involved.
First, cooler heads should have prevailed in Embassy Cairo. Did officials there really think that issuing their statement would have forestalled or weakened the attack they saw coming? Was it really wise to go ahead with the statement after being told by the State Department not to post it without changes the department presumably wanted to make?
Compounding the damage, an administration official seems to have subsequently told ABC News that the statement as issued “did not reflect the views of the U.S. Government.” Precisely what was that mindless utterance supposed to convey? And exactly what did the department have in mind in withdrawing what the embassy had quite properly enunciated?
Despite it all, the embassy does merit some understanding of its concerns in a heated, anxious moment. In an interview with CBS News President Obama offers just that. After repeating that Washington had not approved the embassy’s action, he says that, in a potentially dangerous situation, his “tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack.”
A nice grace note. But the warning flags should still be up.