President Barack Obama's flawed approach to the Middle East and his failure to assert American leadership throughout the Arab Spring resulted in reduced American influence in the region and set the stage for Tuesday's assaults on U.S. diplomatic posts led by Islamic extremists, Romney senior foreign policy advisor Rich Williamson told The Cable Tuesday night.
The attacks Tuesday on two U.S. diplomatic posts were directly related to "the loss of American leadership and prestige throughout the Middle East because of the Obama administration's failed policies in that region," Williamson said in an extensive interview late Tuesday evening.
The interview took place before it was known that four Americans died in the armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. President Barack Obama issued a statement this morning confirming reports of Stevens' death and condemning the attacks.
"Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives," Obama said in the statement. "I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a seperate statement Wednesday morning that foreign service officer Sean Smith was also killed. The names of the other two U.S. citizens killed have not yet beeen released, pending notification of their families.
Tuesday night, while the attacks were still ongoing, Williamson said that the governments in Egypt and Libya as well as the Obama administration bear responsibility for the deteriorating security environment that led to the attacks.
"The events in Egypt and Libya show the failure of the Egyptian and Libyan governments to uphold their obligations to keep our diplomatic missions safe and secure and the regard in which the United States is held under President Obama in these two countries," he said. "It's all part of a broader scheme of the president's failure to be an effective leader for U.S. interests in the Middle East."
The Obama administration has failed to develop, much less communicate, a coherent or consistent approach to protecting American interests throughout the Arab Spring, Williamson argued. The events in Egypt and Libya are part of a broader story of what he characterized as the administration's lack of leadership in responding to the Syria crisis, a mishandling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and a failed engagement policy with Iran, he charged.
Tuesday's attacks are not isolated incidents, but rather are part of an increasing and disturbing trend of anti-American incidents that illustrate the administration's failed policies, according to Williamson.
"The region's in turmoil and this president has not provided effective leadership," Williamson said. "It's a pattern and the pattern sees the U.S. with reduced influence, reduced respect, reduced capacity to project its interests and our security is at risk because of the greatest danger, which is a nuclear breakout by Iran."
Williamson said that the Obama administration had reduced funding for civil society and democracy programs in the Middle East during its first years in office and de-emphasized the Bush administration's "Freedom Agenda." Romney expressed the same sentiment in an interview in Israel in July, where he expressed concern about the path of the Arab Spring.
"The Arab Spring is not appropriately named. It has become a development of more concern and it occurred in part because of the reluctance on the part of various dictators to provide more freedom to their citizens. President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the Freedom Agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner."
In Egypt, the Obama administration stood by Mubarak for too long, thereby alienating the revolutionaries and reducing U.S. capacity to influence the new government, Williamson argued. In Libya, the administration "led from behind" and was dragged into intervening by Britain and France, he said, and then failed to follow up sufficiently to support their transition to a stable democracy.
Regarding Syria, Williamson referred to Romney's call in 2011 for the administration to engage more with the opposition, and said that the administration's limited supported for the opposition now was "a day late and a dollar short" -- insufficient to respond to the brutality of the Syrian regime and the deaths of more than 20,000 Syrian civilians.
Romney supports working with allies to arm the Syrian opposition, and Williamson said the fact that Tuesday's attack in Benghazi was perpetrated by militias that were part of last year's Libyan revolution shouldn't hurt the current push to arm the Syrian opposition now. If the administration had engaged the opposition earlier, he arged, that concern would have been alleviated by now.
"Anyone who has any sophistication knows that we weren't going to get a U.N. Security Council resolution from Russia. You would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to know that would be the result. So the administration wasted valuable time and the cost is 20,000 Syrian lives. That's not what I would call effective foreign policy," he said.
Romney has said little about the Arab Spring. His few public statements on the uprisings have focused on his fear that the once-hopeful movement is taking a turn for the worse and that the democratic reformers who started the revolutions are losing out to the Islamic groups that are assuming power.
"We're facing an Arab Spring which is out of control in some respects because the president was not as strong as he needed to be in encouraging our friends to move toward representative forms of government," Romney said last October.
The Romney campaign has previously promised to return to a focus on promoting democracy and put an increased priority on human rights. Williamson said the Obama administration's downplaying of those issues had exacerbated the region's problems.
"Maybe if [Obama] had continued to support democracy and civil society in these countries the way that Bush did, the way they should, maybe the more moderate forces would have better prepared to compete for political power," he said.
He also criticized Obama for not meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu while the Israeli prime minister is visiting the United States for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. Amid accusations by anonymous Israeli officials that the president had turned down Jerusalem's request for a meeting, the White House said Tuesday that it was a scheduling issue, not a slight, but Williamson is skeptical.
"This president has played more than 100 rounds of golf, more than any president in U.S. history, but he can't find time to meet with the head of state of one of our closest allies facing a national threat. It's mindboggling," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement Tuesday night confirming that one State Department officer had been killed in the armed attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The battle in Benghazi between armed militants and the Libyan government army in the streets near the consulate raged into the night, and Clinton phoned Libyan National Assembly leader Mohammed Magarief to urge him to commit more resources to protecting Americans.
In a separate incident Tuesday, protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo resulted in several protesters breaching the compound's walls and replacing an American flag with the black banner of al Qaeda. There were no injuries in that incident, which the protesters claimed was inspired by an obscure U.S.-made film's depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.
The Romney campaign issued a statement late Tuesday criticizing a press release on the Cairo Embassy website that focused on the issue of religious incitement and religious freedom. That press release had been heavily criticized by conservative websites and by the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee throughout the day as an "apology" for the assault, although it was issued before the embassy breach.
"I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi," Romney said in the statement. "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."
The Romney campaign had initially sent out the statement under embargo, presumably to adhere to its pledge to avoid negative campaigning on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but then allowed reporters to publish it earlier.
The White House distanced itself from the embassy statement late Tuesday, saying it hadn't been cleared with Washington. Clinton's statement also referred to that controversy.
"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
A previous version of this story stated that Romney supports U.S. directly arming the Syrian opposition. A senior Romney campaign official clarified that Romney has not yet called for the U.S. to directly arm them.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.