President Obama was quick to condemn the attacks.
"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. 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."
The attacks were apparently in response to an independent anti-Muslim film by Florida pastor Terry Jones called The Innocence of Muslims that many found blasphemous. Response to the film included the storming of the American embassy in Cairo yesterday, where protesters desecrated an American flag.
You might remember Terry Jones (not of Monty Python fame) as the same man who caused unrest in the Arab world by his promises to burn a Quaran. Again, because of a conservative evangelical pastor, the United States is caught in the intersection of First Amendment free speech rights, which we hold sacred, and foreign policy.
While free speech is one of the most American of rights, we have never been afraid to put limits on speech. In Schenck vs. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court said that speech can be limited when it may pose a clear and present danger to American citizens. That opinion was later narrowed in Brandenburg vs. Ohio, that holds that government cannot limit speech unless it is directed towards inciting imminent lawless action. There isn't a clear foreign policy application for either of these decisions - but in light of the impact of Terry Jones actions, perhaps there should be.
In a cooly calculated response, presidential challenger Mitt Romney issued a statement before the murder of Ambassador Stevens, sharply criticizing Mr. Obama's foreign policy.
"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."It is interesting that this statement came before an official statement from the White House, and ahead of the assassination of Mr. Stevens. Strong words from someone who does not have a clear foreign policy.
Most American embassies in the Middle East resemble fortresses, with a maze of checkpoints, searches and metal detectors that visitors are forced to go through before visiting the ambassador or diplomatic staff. In the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, a car ride from the front entrance of the embassy to the ambassador's quarters is necessary, all within an enclosed compound. Diplomatic staff rarely venture from the compound.
After the recent unrest in Libya, for an American ambassador to be that exposed is unthinkable.