An inadequate response

Thirty-two years have passed since a Democrat was seeking re-election in a poor economic environment. Thirty-two years have passed since American hostages were released from the US embassy in Tehran. Given that President Carter carried just six states and the District of Columbia, one might imagine that President Obama would wish to minimise any parallels. Yet his comment that Mitt Romney has tendency to “shoot first and aim later” is eerily reminiscent of Carter’s critique of Ronald Reagan.

Romney’s criticism of Obama’s foreign policy came too quickly after the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens. It was undignified. But it was not simply jumping on a bandwagon, as Democratic partisans are sure to allege. Romney has long argued that Obama’s foreign policy was been weak and apologetic.

Conciliation is a valid tactic in international diplomacy. So is assertiveness. Neither is a betrayal of any principle. Both have pragmatic value. Short of total war or total surrender, both can be overused. President Obama’s strategy veers too far to conciliation, and his reaction to this latest outrage is exemplary of this.

When the US embassy in Cairo was attacked, embassy staff issued a virulent attack on the filmmakers who apparently offended the mob. This statement was later disowned by the State Department in Washington and tweets issued by the embassy were deleted. At the very best this sends mixed messages.

The Secretary of State and the President both criticized the filmmakers before condemning the violence against US missions. The President did not mention the critical concept of freedom of speech. The President described respect for all religions as a core value of the US, yet it is not mentioned in Constitution he swore to uphold. Freedom of speech is.

Even on a pragmatic level this was ridiculous. By expressing sympathy for the offence caused to the mob before condemning their violence, the President may have implied to people who know little of US law that he will accede to their demand that he prosecute the filmmakers. At the very least, it is his duty to declare that he simply cannot do this. It would be nice if he would also declare that he would not do that even if he could. But that is a statement of values, not his constitutional duty. The President swore to uphold the Constitution. He did not swear to agree with it.

In the midst of the controversy over Danish cartoons President Bush issued a strong defense of freedom of speech, while similarly regretting the offence to Muslims. This is a reasonable balance to strike, though when those threatened are Americans, the President’s duty to speak up for freedom of expression is even more urgent.

Insulting the Prophet Mohammed is like burning an American flag. It offends millions, but it is constitutionally protected free expression. America has never called for foreign governments to prosecute people who burn American flags abroad. But a US ally – President Morsi of Egypt – has called for the US to prosecute American filmmakers for blasphemy. A competent President would declare, most insistently, that this cannot be done. A decent President would make a principled defense of freedom and declare that it should not be done. This President speaks only the weasel words of mutual respect and tolerance. Mutual respect means that Morsi should respect American values just as much as Obama seems to respect Muslim values.

This President’s response is inadequate.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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