The political fallout of the Libya attack

As the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi raises questions about US policy, we ask if it will impact the election.

Barack Obama, the US president, has condemned the attacks on the American consulate in Libya on Tuesday night.

Chris Stevens, the US ambassador, and three others died during violent protests in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Demonstrations in Egypt and Libya were apparently sparked in response to a low-budget film depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as a paedophile and womaniser.

US policy identifies ex-patriots living outside of the country, tries to fund, arm and convince them to come together to be a front to go back in to change regimes and countries we don’t like .… Chris Stevens did get wrapped up in that and that’s how he goes back to Libya.”

– Hillary Mann Leverett, a former White House official

Calling the incident “outrageous and shocking”, Obama said: “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, but there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.”

Obama’s response appears to have become an election issue after Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, accused the president of sympathising with those who carried out the attacks.

Romney said: “The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathising with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It is never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.”

Romney was referring to a statement issued by the US embassy in Cairo, which was released ahead of the protests in Benghazi.

That statement – which the White House was quick to point out was not approved by the administration – said the US embassy in Cairo “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”.

[The Cairo US embassy statement] was unusually concerned with the sensibilities of people in that region. The Romney campaign thought they could exploit the unusualness of that statement … but [ended up] sounding incredibly exploitative and insensitive.”

– Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper

Joe Watkins, a Republican strategist, told Al Jazeera that Romney’s criticism of Obama was simply a matter of political calculation.

“I think Mitt Romney did what he had to do. He’s locked in a very, very tight presidential campaign right now …. He had to say something to criticise President Obama and his foreign policy stance, and at the same time show his resolve as a candidate and as a possible future president ….

“Mitt Romney would be trying to appeal to all those people who haven’t decided yet who they support, and also the Democrats who might be strong on national defence who may feel that President Obama has not been as strong a commander-in-chief when it comes to foreign policy issues ….”

In examining the impact of the incident on US foreign policy in the region and on the US presidential campaigns, Inside Story: US 2012 asks: How will the attack in Libya impact US politics?

Guests joining presenter Shihab Rattansi for the discussion are: Hillary Mann Leverett, a former White House official and a professor at Yale University; Jonathan Brown, an associate professor at the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University; and Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper.

“[The protest] is not just about the film, it’s really about community … about Muslims in Europe and in America wanting to have their sensibilities taken into account as citizens in these countries … it’s about saying ‘we want our sensitivities respected’.”

Jonathan Brown, a scholar of Islamic studies

The US embassy in Cairo issued a statement on Tuesday evening – which was not yet approved by the White House – before news of the attack in Benghazi emerged.

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honouring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”