President Obama and his men (and particularly his women) are having a tough time standing upright in the fierce wind blowing from the east. The troops are leaderless and the leader is rudderless. Their strategy, unique in American history, is making a wish for the barbarians to be nice.
The news from Libya gets darker, and the worst of the bad news for the president is that if everybody at the White House is "on message," it's because everyone gets to make up his (or her) own message for nobody to believe.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who obviously needs a good night's sleep, got in a war of adjectives with some of the caliphs of the Arabian knights. She fired the first volley of adjectives at the infamous video about the Prophet Muhammad, which the White House, against all available evidence, insists is the sole cause of the deadly riots. The video is "disgusting and reprehensible," she said, "and it appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage."
A secretary of state, any secretary of state, rarely gets to use a large-caliber word like "reprehensible," and Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, fired back with large-caliber words of his own. The video is "heinous and evil." A president, even of a Muslim nation with a language written in purple ink, rarely employs "heinous," which is of a slightly deeper hue than "reprehensible."
Mrs. Clinton paid tribute, sort of, to the First Amendment, which represents the principle on which America was founded, but she couldn't resist the temptation to add a demeaning footnote. "There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable."
The footnote was not unnecessary, since the First Amendment does not guarantee happy speech, intelligent speech or even responsible speech. It guarantees free speech. But others in the government eagerly repeated the semiapology over the first hours after the rioting exploded.
This could have been a teaching moment about why Americans revere a Constitution that, in the words of the Weekly Standard, "was not written on behalf of poets and philosophers and film producers but to enshrine the rights of all citizens." Instead, the White House tried to keep the focus on the video, to distract attention from its incompetence.
The White House keynote of distraction was sounded first by Jay Carney, the president's press agent, when he insisted the riots were not aimed at his boss, the government, or even at "the American people," but only at the video.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., sounded even sillier when she insisted the storming of the American Consulate in Benghazi was not planned and organized as a deliberate assault on America and its diplomats, but was a "spontaneous" happening against the movie. In her telling, it was probably a bunch of guys in Benghazi, loitering on the corner talking about the what was under the chadors the girls wore, and just happened upon a cache of automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and when one of the good ol' boys suggested they attack the American Consulate from three directions, they thought, well, why not? Guys, you know, like, will be guys.
The Libyan government's insistence that the riots were not spontaneous, but highly organized and led by outsiders from Yemen and Mali, sounds like special pleading — blaming outsiders is always tempting for governments under siege. But it comports with what everyone so far knows.
If the president wants to find someone to blame, he should look at the face in his mirror. He imagined that a few honeyed words would make the Islamic world love him (and maybe even tolerate the rest of us) merely by making goo-goo eyes at those who want to kill us. We've had three years of goo-goo and the Muslim red-hots are still killing American soldiers, occasional civilians and selected diplomats.
Now the government is playing movie critic. The video is not likely to win an Oscar, but criticizing the religious faith of others, and not just the faith of Christians and Jews, is well within what Hillary Clinton calls "the outer limits of free speech." Apologizing, whether by word or deed, for America is asking for trouble. Nobody does apology for America better than Barack Obama, but now we see what he gets for it, even if he doesn't.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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