Ethics Train Wreck Forensics: The Cairo Embassy Statement

“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 honoring 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.”

Mitt! Mitt….get off the tracks!

Thus did the U.S. Embassy in Cairo respond to the growing local uproar over a cheapie anti-Islamic film produced in the U.S. and put on the internet. The statement preceded the disruption at the embassy itself as well as the deadly attack later, purportedly with the same motivation, on Libya’s U.S. embassy. Mitt Romney said, shortly after the latter,

“The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached,” Romney told reporters. “Protesters were inside the grounds. They reiterated that statement after the breach. I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values. That instead, when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. An apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

Later, Romney issued a statement that said, in part,

“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 next morning, the White House distanced itself from the Cairo statement. “An administration official tells ABC News that ‘no one in Washington approved that statement before it was released and it doesn’t reflect the views of the U.S. government,’” ABC News reported. Later, both the State Department, in the person of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Obama, issued new statements. Clinton:

 “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior [in Benghazi], along with the protest that took place at our Embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear–there is no justification for this, none. Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith.”


“Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.”

Naturally, the media got its oar in. Typical on the left was the Washington Post, which editorialized by calling Romney’s critique a “crude political attack,” asserting that the Cairo statement was before, rather than after the attacks on the two embassies, and declaring that President Obama’s statement “struck the right chord.”  On the rightward side of the ideological divide, the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto criticized  both Obama and Clinton, saying, “…neither the president nor Mrs. Clinton vigorously, or even limply, defended the right of free speech.”

What’s going on here?

The answer is: a lot of stuttering and stumbling in a difficult situation, with the media taking sides rather than clarifying matters. Let’s look at the participants:

  • The Cairo Embassy. I’ve spoken to diplomatic corps lifers. They insist that the Cairo statement was almost certainly not pre-approved by the White House or the State Department. They suspect that it was cobbled together as tensions in Cairo were rising from previously approved language for defusing such situations. “The job of the embassy is to communicate what needs to be said where they are, not what the U.S. public believes or would want to hear. That’s diplomacy.” Fair enough. I agree that the tone of the message is calculated to calm the waters, even at the price of appearing to side with the demonstrators against free speech. I agree that this was defensible and reasonable at the time.

After the demonstration and flag-burning at the Cairo embassy, and definitely after the attack in Libya killing our ambassador, however, that message was not appropriate, and was in fact offensive. The Post is wrong: if the statement remained on the website after the attacks, then it was reasonably interpreted as the response to the attacks as well. [The statement, unchanged, remained all day. It’s down now.] After the attacks, the language—“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—appears to side with the attackers, and justify their actions. This may have been fine as a diplomatic effort to prevent attacks, but after the attacks such rhetoric earned every bit of Mitt Romney’s critique.

  • Mitt Romney   PolitiFact, the left-biased fact-check feature of the Tampa Bay Times, went to great lengths, interviewing “apology experts”, to prove that Romney’s “apology” accusation was unfair. I don’t want to have this argument again, so I’ll just say (again) that the I don’t see a material distinction between saying that we condemn the acts of our citizens that have provoked you to attack out embassy and we apologize for those acts. I think the one implies the other, and most objective observers would agree. “I condemn what my child did to your car, but I don’t apologize for it—I’m not sorry he did something so wrong that I condemn it.” What sense does that make? None, but never mind: PolitiFact’s obviously anti-Romney experts were equal to the task. John Murphy, a communications professor at the University of Illinois who studies presidential rhetoric and political language, reasoned like this:

“First, the statement does not use the word ‘apology’ or ‘apologize’ and does not use any synonym for that word. There is no statement here that says, ‘We are sorry.’  Word games! Is it possible not to be sorry for the acts of someone within your realm of responsibility when you condemn the acts? No.

“Second, the grammar of the statement condemns the actions of a third party. An apology, to be pedantic, is when the first party says to the second party, ‘I have offended you and I am sorry.’ This statement condemns a third party — misguided individuals — that does not officially represent the United States. The term ‘individuals’ dissociates them from the U.S. Therefore, it’s impossible to say that this is an apology from the U.S. to anyone.” Oh, nonsense. There was an attack on embassies based on offensive speech  emanating from U.S. citizens in the U.S. The United States is responsible for the acts of its citizens, misguided or not. There is no “third party.”  There is the United States of America.

“Third, the statement does not apologize for the right of free speech; it affirms it. It condemns those who abuse the right of free speech, but it claims that this is a universal right, as is religious toleration. So, the statement does not like what the misguided individuals said and did, but recognizes they have a right to do it.” This is on firmer ground, but the statement is so badly phrased that it is hard to clap with more than one hand. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” Rejecting what “actions?” the action is the speech, the film, right? What value is free speech if the government “rejects” the action necessary to engage in it? I’ll give Murphy a pass here, but he’s spinning. The bottom line is that the statement sides with the attackers against the U.S. citizens exercising—irresponsibly—their right of free speech.

Nevertheless, Romney was wrong, as in irresponsible, to leap on the opportunity to score the President for his feckless foreign policy instincts while the Arab street was in the process of erupting in anti-America violence. I think his critique was correct, but he should have waited.

  • The President and Hillary Clinton. I don’t see that their statements were appropriate places to defend free speech. What they said—the provocative speech was inflammatory, but that cannot justify violence—was sufficient. They were bystanders in this train wreck.



Graphic: Film Edge

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at




11 thoughts on “Ethics Train Wreck Forensics: The Cairo Embassy Statement

  1. 1) Condemning/apologizing-for the actions of individuals is not the same as condeming/apologizing-for the values of the country.

    2) A previously published statement cannot be said to be a response to later action just because it has not yet been modified. That is not reasonable. The time of the statement has to be taken into account. Your logic just doesn’t work there. Someone may find the comment offensive, but they have to misrepresent the context to do so.

    • 1. Agreed. It still was, in essence, an apology.
      2. This I don’t buy. The pre-attack statement was (arguably) justifiable to try to stop the violence as the priecst built—it was not an appropriate response once there were actual attacks. How can you argue otherwise? This isn’t a blog, its an embassy website, and presumably up to date. If I leave a voice mail message on my office phone saying “I’m out of my office all week” and forget to change it when I’m back, I’m still responsible for the message. Indeed, the Embassy tweeted that “the statement still stands.” A website can’t have a current message and claim that the context is past—or are you pleading incompetence over inappropriateness?

      • 1. Yes, but not the apology that people are complaining about. If I apologize for writing “You’re an idiot” in the middle of an argument, it would be unfair to claim I apologized for making my argument.
        2. I’m arguing that the failure to update the website in the face of excalating violence is the more likely sin committed here. Much like failing to change your message does not mean you think you are out of the office. Mistake? Absolutely, but a very different mistake than how it’s being attacked.

        That said, the tweet gives me pause. I may have to change my mind due to that. If I pretend the tweet isn’t there, I think my position should be assumed, or, at least, the counter position shouldn’t be assumed. With the tweet? At least someone is an idiot.

        • From (ugh) PolitiFact:

          “About three hours later, according to the Washington Examiner, the embassy tweeted, “This morning’s condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.” (This tweet has disappeared from the Embassy Twitter feed.)”

  2. I have to take issue with your pass of Clinton and Obama’s statements. Particularly the part about, ‘We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.’. Let this be a message to all those who support Homosexual marriage, if you denigrate the beliefs of Christians your speech will be deplored by the US government.

    Of course this is ridiculous, putting opposition to religious beliefs outside the realm of legitimate public debate is antithetical to freedom and democracy. Debating all ideologies is a necessary part of public discourse.

    • Brian shouldn’t worry too much. I am pretty sure they meant that they reject all efforts to denigrate the beliefs of Muslims. Mr. “they cling to guns or religion” hasn’t condemned an award-winning and critically acclaimed play aimed at the religion of his opponent, Mitt Romney. Yes, I know it is satire, but if that play had been produced about Mohammed acting in the same way as the Mormon missionaries, it would be jut as funny but the response would have been very different.

  3. Pingback: Ethics Train Wreck Forensics: The Cairo Embassy Statement | Ethics … « Ethics Find

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