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Did Romney Slip Up In Embassy Spat?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to begin today's program with a visit to the Barbershop. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. With so many big stories in the headlines this week we thought we'd give them an early start.

So sitting in the chairs for our Shape Up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. He's with us in Washington D.C. along with civil rights attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar; Johns Hopkins political science professor Lester Spence; and from Austin, Mario Loyola. He's with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a columnist for the National Review.

We're some technical difficulties, unfortunately, with his studio so we're talking with him on his phone. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.



IZRAEL: Super Mario. All right. Well, hey, let's get things started with kind of a tough story - the protest and violence going on in the Middle East and North Africa. American embassies have been attacked and four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, were killed. And all this allegedly started with an online video. What can you tell us about this, Michel?

MARTIN: Well, you know, Jimi, as I think most people know, this story is evolving and we're getting new details all the time. And I really encourage people to go to NPR.org and check out the latest reporting which has been extensive on this story.

But the unrest is thought to have been sparked by a trailer for this crude video that posted on YouTube that essentially depicts the Prophet Mohammed, who is the central figure in Islam, as a fool, as a child molester, and as a killer, and people are saying, you know, that Muslims find it offensive.

But as we've reported, I don't think you have to be a Muslim to find it offensive. And Jimi, as we know, of course the victims were killed in Libya on Tuesday. President Obama condemned the attacks on Wednesday morning. But Republican candidate Mitt Romney took issue with how the president handled it and I'll just play a short clip of that tape.

He's responding to an early statement from the U.S. embassy in Egypt that condemned the film. Here's a clip.


MITT ROMNEY: The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions. It's never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. You know, President Obama responded by saying Romney was out of bounds and the comments proved that Republicans had a, quote, "tendency to shoot first and aim later."

MARTIN: At least that Republican.


MARTIN: I don't know that he said all Republicans. He said that Mitt Romney does at the very - at least.

IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: All right?

IZRAEL: Well, A-Train, Arsalan Iftikhar, you are the Muslim Guy and you wrote a book entitled "Islamic Passivism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." What do you think of all this political response to the attack?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think that President Obama's response, you know, was the calm, measured, rational response that I think any president would've given, whether they're a Democrat or Republican. You know, obviously the facts in this case are still coming out, but I think that, you know, President Obama made the correct response.

I think when it comes to Governor Mitt Romney's response, you know, there was a lot of pushback from even his own fellow Republicans, you know, saying that, you know, now might not be in the time, you know, in lieu of, you know, the death of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy officials, to be playing politics with something that should be considered a national tragedy.

And so I think that, you know, it is election season - I'm not completely surprised by what transpired but I'm actually more concerned about what's going on in the region right now.

IZRAEL: Mario Loyola, you worked on foreign policy for Senate Republicans during the George W. Bush years. You know, a lot of GOP leaders did not have Romney's back on his statements and Romney himself didn't repeat it on the trail Thursday. So was Romney wrong or do you think he had a point?

LOYOLA: No, I think he was right. Part of the problem here is that, you know, the embassy was Tweeting statements that are necessarily official statements and they're attributable, diplomatically speaking, to the government of the United States.

Now, in my opinion, this is a coordination problem, though I think - my impression is that those Tweets from the embassy were not coordinated with the State Department or the National Security Council staff, which in a moment of crisis, especially, they should have been.

And if our embassies abroad can't coordinate their public statements in the middle of a crisis with the State Department and the White House, then they should stop Tweeting. So that's one. But it's certainly - there's a very legitimate worry I think among conservatives, that the reaction is going to be to worry about what it is that offended these people and what grievance they have.

And, you know, this is sort of like the situation where, you know, a guy gets mad at the neighbor and takes it out on his wife. Why are we talking about what the neighbor did? This is a situation of totally unjustified violence in the Middle East. And furthermore, what film a private citizen of the United States makes is absolutely no concern of the U.S. government's.

It is wholly inappropriate for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs to pick up the phone and call some biker pastor in Florida, or whatever he is, and, you know, implicitly intimidate him about speech that he's making or positions that he's supporting, however offensive they may be.

What we pay the general - the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for is to protect our liberties, even the liberty to be offensive. And by the way, being offensive is not an incitement to violence. Otherwise, I could punch someone in the face every time I see them wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt.

MARTIN: All right. Well, let's hear what Lester has to say and then, Mario, I have a question for you.

SPENCE: Yeah. I understand your point. What I'd say is first, the comments were made before the event happened and Romney actually...

IZRAEL: Right.

SPENCE: ...got details wrong, first of all. Right? And then even when he was counseled by Republicans to walk his comment back, implicitly, he didn't. It seems to me that at this moment when we have a tragedy like this, President Obama isn't just the president of the Democrats, he's everybody's president. And it's Romney's responsibility if he seeks to hold the office, to actually act presidential.

And that's something we can say is just symbolic but that really has meaning, not just domestically, but has meaning for how the country is looked at abroad and how American leadership is perceived. And that's a deep problem, right?

MARTIN: The question I have for you, Mario is...

LOYOLA: Well...

MARTIN: Wait, wait. Mario, you're saying that he's defending an American citizen who is making this work, and we don't even know that to be true. I mean, one of the things that I noticed that he said we're defending our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion. And you're certainly right - I think a lot of people don't understand around the world, that you do have the right to be offensive in this country.

We don't have hate speech codes in the United States in the same way that we have in a number of European countries. But the fact is we don't know that this is an American citizen, first of all. The person who made this film has gone into hiding and he initially falsely told two news organizations that he was an Israeli Jew when it appears that he is not.

So here's a person who was making a deliberately provocative work and then attempting to blame that work on a third party, which seems to be a further provocation. So the question you have is was that really an appropriate - I mean, I understand your point that you can't defend this loss of life, but the governments of these countries are not defending this loss of life and I just have to ask is it really appropriate to defend what is essentially kind of religious pornography?

LOYOLA: Yes. He's not defending religious pornography. He's defending a social space in which we have First Amendment rights that cover a lot of things that are deeply offensive to a lot of people. I mean, you know, if the Muslims and, you know, the Salifists in Egypt think they have it bad, they should try being a Christian in the United States who deal with offensive depictions of their religion on a daily, daily basis.

And can't even legitimately complain about it when the National Endowment for the Humanities gets grants...

MARTIN: OK, but wasn't the intention to create a political response? I mean, this is not just something to hang on the wall of a museum. The intention was to create a political response, it seems to be. So why wouldn't it be appropriate...

LOYOLA: Maybe so...

MARTIN: ...for U.S. officials to try to intervene in that political response? That's my question.

LOYOLA: Maybe so but we still have to distinguish between that and an incitement to violence. Let's organize a riot to attack a certain person. That's not what the movie did.

IZRAEL: Well...

LOYOLA: And, you know, once you have a violent protest and you have a crisis with a potential attack on an embassy, you have a completely different situation. It doesn't matter where the - it doesn't really matter at that point where the strike came from.

You're not addressing a group of people that have even ration-I mean, there are even reports that they had organized this and were just using the movie as a pretext. Why did it come on 9/11? The movie had nothing to do with 9/11. I think - and look. And take a step back. I think that in a crisis, you know, leaders, whether they're candidates for office or the president of the United States, have to come out and make a statement of position.

I happen to think that when the president finally spoke and the White House finally got in front of cameras and made a statement, it was a strong statement and it was an appropriate statement. It didn't, unfortunately, mention the protests in Egypt, and I think that it sort of addressed the grievance aspect of it more than I was comfortable with.

MARTIN: Jimi - Jimi...

LOYOLA: It was a strong statement.

MARTIN: Jimi has a right to - Jimi wants to get involved. Speaking of free speech...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...Jimi has a right to get in this too.

IZRAEL: You know, as a creative, I'm kind of frustrated by it, you know, by this whole talk about this film that provoked a nation to commit this heinous act. You know, all art provokes somebody and it should. It absolutely should. "Birth of a Nation" in 1915, you know, white people - about the start of the Ku Klux Klan - white people ran out the theater attacking black men randomly. You know, the NAACP - they wanted the film banned, but today - today, this date, right as you sit here, this is one of the greatest movies ever made, in the history of film.

Now, obviously, "Muslim Innocence" or whatever it's being called at this time, will not go down in history as such a film, but art provokes and this is the nature of art.

MARTIN: You think it's art? Have you seen it?

IZRAEL: I have not seen it, but it's not...

MARTIN: So you haven't seen it, but you're going to tell us it's...

IZRAEL: It's not for me to say. It's not for me to say...

MARTIN: OK. All right.

IZRAEL: ...whether it's art or not. It's not. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: OK. Well, in fairness, most of the people who are writing probably haven't seen it either. I mean, I think that's fair. But, Arsalan...

IFTIKHAR: This is Arsalan. I have seen it and there are a few points that I have to push back against Mario. You know, first of all, you know, the Bible - the Quran-burning pastor that he's talking about, Terry Jones - he was very, you know, deliberately brought into this whole movie mess, but what's interesting to note, as Lester pointed out, was that Mitt Romney's response to this was based on factual inaccuracies. You know, the statement that came out of the U.S. embassy in Cairo was actually before the killings in Benghazi occurred, not after them.

And so, you know, for Mitt Romney to try to score some cheap political points by slapping a Romney 2012 sticker on the tombstone of Ambassador Stevens, you know, is the biggest bush league politics I've seen in a long time.

MARTIN: We also wanted to save some time to talk about some important domestic issues, you know, here at home. I don't know that we're going to have time to talk about that, but we're going to take a short break. We're going to stick with this conversation and - with our Barber Shop roundtable. As I said, we're having our Barber Shop early in the program today because we have so many issues that we want to talk about.

We're speaking with writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Mario Loyola, and political science professor Lester Spence. Three of us are here in Washington, D.C. Mario is in Austin, Texas. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll be right back with the Barber Shop roundtable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.