Frame Game

Embassy Row

Romney’s condemnation of U.S. diplomats over the Mohammed movie is a betrayal of free speech.

Mitt Romney addressing the 2012 National Guard Association Convention on Tuesday.

Photo by David Calvert/Getty Images

Mitt Romney says the U.S. Embassy in Cairo has betrayed “American values.” He’s wrong. The embassy is standing for American values. It’s Romney who’s betraying them.

The fight began brewing Tuesday morning as Egyptian protesters gathered outside the embassy. They were furious at a sophomoric American-made movie that ridiculed the prophet Mohammed. In response, the embassy issued a statement saying that it “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” The statement added: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

For the next several hours, the embassy used its Twitter feed to answer questions and objections. “We condemn this effort [by] misguided in[div]iduals to abuse universal right of free speech,” the embassy told a Muslim inquirer. Minutes later, it affirmed, “Freedom of speech is a universal human right, but that will not stop us from condemning misguided, uninformed actions.” When a Christian Tea Party activist asked, “Why are you condemning the 1st amendment rights of US Citizens?” the embassy replied that “we’re not condemning rights, we’re criticizing specific statements, a right guaranteed by freedom of expression.”

By Tuesday afternoon, protesters had scaled a wall at the compound. The chairman of Maryland Young Republicans, a Christian, accused the embassy staff of ignoring the incursion: “Am I correct that @usembassycairo apologized TO people who invaded our sovereign embassy and tore down our flag?” The embassy shot back: “we did not apologize to anyone because we did nothing.” To other critics, the embassy explained, “Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we’re the ones actually living through this.” It added: “Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.” An hour later, the embassy concluded: “This morning’s condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”

When you read the tweets alongside the initial statement, the message is clear. Free speech is a universal right. The Muslim-baiting movie is an abuse of that right. The embassy rejects the movie but defends free speech and condemns the invasion of its compound.

Three hours after the embassy finished these comments, the U.S. confirmed a lethal attack on its consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Within half an hour, Romney launched a political assault on the Cairo embassy’s statements: “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.” At a news conference Wednesday morning, Romney escalated his assault: “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.”

Romney’s description of the embassy’s initial statement—“sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions”—was blatantly false. When the embassy issued its morning statement, no one had breached the wall. After the breach, when the embassy tweeted that its initial statement “still stands,” it added in the same breath: “As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”

At his press conference, Romney accused Obama of “having that embassy reiterate a statement effectively apologizing for the right of free speech.” Romney claimed that the embassy had said, in his paraphrase, “We stand by our comments that suggest that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.” This, too, was a Romney lie. The embassy had declared five times in writing that free speech was a universal right.

What made Romney’s statement and press conference disturbing, however, was his repeated use of the words sympathize and apology to conflate three issues the Cairo embassy had carefully separated: bigotry, free speech, and violence. The embassy had stipulated that expressions of bigotry, while wrong, were protected by freedom of speech and didn’t warrant retaliatory violence. Romney, by accusing the embassy of “sympathizing with those who had breached” the compound, equated moral criticism of the Mohammed movie with support for violence. In so doing, Romney embraced the illiberal Islamist mindset that led to the embassy invasion: To declare a movie offensive is to authorize its suppression.

“The Embassy of the United States issued what appeared to be an apology for American principles,” Romney asserted at the press conference. “It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values. … An apology for America’s values is never the right course.” Lest anyone miss his buzzwords, Romney called the embassy’s comments “a disgraceful statement on the part of our administration to apologize for American values.”

What, exactly, does Romney mean by “American values”? The embassy never apologized for free speech or diplomatic sovereignty. The only American offense it criticized was the movie’s “bigotry” and “efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Does Romney regard this criticism as an “apology for American values”? Is bigotry an American value? Is it weak or un-American to repudiate slurs against Muslims?

I don’t know where you were born, Mr. Romney (just kidding!), but where I come from, there’s nothing more American than recognizing the idiocy of a man’s views and, at the same time, his right to express them. If you can’t tell the difference between those two things, the main threat to our values right now isn’t President Obama, the Egyptians, the Libyans, or our diplomats in Cairo. It’s you.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: