President Obama faces two major challenges in the wake of the killing of a US ambassador and worldwide anti-US protests over an offensive anti-Islam video: Explaining how the violent and apparently coordinated attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya – possibly linked to Al Qaeda – was allowed to occur; and responding diplomatically and militarily in ways that prevent further attacks.
That the challenges come less than two months before a presidential election that’s pivoted from its largely economic theme to national security and terrorism makes Obama’s situation all the more difficult.
Protests against the YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims” continued to expand Saturday to some 20 nations in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and North Africa. Most were peaceful, but the protests turned into assaults on US and other Western embassies in Sudan and Tunis, and violent clashes with police in several countries left at least six dead, the Associated Press reported.
If Al Qaeda has yet to be proved responsible for Tuesday’s attack in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US embassy personnel – as many analysts and officials suspect – the terrorist organization moved quickly to take advantage of the highly volatile situation.
"What has happened is a great event, and these efforts should come together in one goal, which is to expel the embassies of America from the lands of the Muslims," the Yemen-based group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said in a statement Saturday, calling on protests to continue in Muslim nations "to set the fires blazing at these embassies."
More to the point, perhaps, AQAP also said the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was in retaliation for the killing in a US drone strike earlier this year of Abu Yahya al-Libi, Al Qaeda’s then-number two.
"The killing of al-Libi only increased the enthusiasm and determination of the Libyan people to take revenge on those who belittled our religion and our messenger, so they stormed the American consulate and killed its ambassador,” the group said.
In his radio address Saturday, Obama spoke to the situation.
“There is no excuse for attacks on our Embassies and Consulates,” he said. “And so long as I am Commander-in-Chief, the United States will never tolerate efforts to harm our fellow Americans.”
“Right now, we are doing whatever we can to protect Americans who are serving abroad,” Obama continued. “We are in contact with governments around the globe, to strengthen our cooperation, and underscore that every nation has a responsibility to help us protect our people. We have moved forward with an effort to see that justice is done for those we lost, and we will not rest until that work is done.”
(For his part, GOP challenger Mitt Romney appeared to want to distance himself from his controversial early comments about the Libya attack, which were widely-criticized by Republicans as well as Democrats. He did not campaign Saturday, leaving it to running mate Paul Ryan and other surrogates to hammer Obama on economic issues.)
Obama has sent contingents of US Marines to beef up security at US missions abroad, and the Pentagon has ordered two guided-missile destroyers to patrol the coast of Libya. US intelligence and military officials are investigating how the attack in Libya might have been detected and prevented. Was there an intelligence failure for which the Obama administration will have to assume responsibility?
“After Obama’s success in killing Osama bin Laden, in killing Qaddafi and in not blowing up Iraq, I think Obama and his aides figured, ‘We’ve got this box pretty well taken care of,’” Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Bush administration official, told the New York Times.
“Now that gets thrown up into the air,” Mr. Rubin said. “Instead of Obama being the successful guy that got Bin Laden, we’re talking about Obama as the second coming of Jimmy Carter, and that’s not something the campaign wants to see.”