As it struggled to respond to the spasm of violence outside its embassies in several Arab states, the US yesterday denied ownership of the film that helped to spark it and said President Barack Obama had personally reached out to the leaders of Libya and Egypt to help investigate its cause and restore calm.
The film, which ridicules the Islamic faith and the prophet Mohammad, was directly referenced by Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, at a meeting in Washington with senior Moroccan officials. The US "had absolutely nothing to do" with it, she said, adding: "This video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage."
Defence officials confirmed that two US Navy destroyers were being deployed off the coast of Libya after the ransacking and destruction of its consular complex in Benghazi that left the US Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, dead as well as three other American diplomats. A contingent of elite anti-terrorism Marines arrived in the country from a base in Europe.
The crisis is already warping the contours of the US election campaign. An early attempt by Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, to suggest that the Obama administration had somehow been apologetic instead of resolute when riots threatened outside the US embassy in Cairo on Tuesday and before the killings in Benghazi, earned him harsh reprimands from Democrats but also even some in his own party.
Yet Mr Obama faces peril also, particularly if it emerges that the attack on the Benghazi compound was not triggered by the anti-Islamic film but was instead a planned attack by militants to avenge the killing of senior al-Qa'ida leaders by US drones. Any hint of a lapse in US intelligence would deepen the damage.
Mr Romney will also seize the opportunity to question Mr Obama's record in the Middle East and to hammer home his contention that the incumbent has been a tentative and sometimes apologetic foreign policy President. "The world needs American leadership," he said at a rally in Virginia last night, adding that the US appeared now to be "at the mercy of events instead of shaping events" on the world stage.
Mr Romney, who has no foreign policy experience of his own, knotted himself unnecessarily by castigating the Obama administration for a statement released by the US embassy in Cairo which was pacifying in tone before the riots started there or in Libya. He stood by his comments on Wednesday even if by then their timing, if not their substance, was seen by many as misguided.
It didn't take Mr Obama long to react. "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," the President told CBS News. "And as President, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that – that, you know, it's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts, and that you've thought through the ramifications."
The White House said Mr Obama had personally telephoned the Libyan President, Mohammed Magarief, and the President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, to discuss the ongoing protests. Egypt, the White House said in a statement, "must co-operate with the US in securing US diplomatic facilities and personnel."
In a separate television interview broadcast yesterday, Mr Obama said the new Egyptian government was "trying to find its way". He also told the Spanish language network, Telemundo, that the US-Egypt relationship after the revolution remained uncertain. "I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," he said.
Both Mrs Clinton and the White House tried to underscore that while the US condemned the film cited as the cause of the latest riots, it could neither have blocked its distribution, particularly in the era of YouTube, nor prevented its making in the first place because of right to freedom of expression. "Our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our constitution and our law," Mrs Clinton said. "And we do not stop citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be."
Embassy attack: The PR assault
11 September, just after 6am (Eastern Standard Time) Hours before protesters storm the compound of the US Embassy in Cairo, the outpost releases a statement condemning "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feeling of Muslims".
About 10:30pm Before full details of the Libya attack come to light, and although the Obama administration seems to be distancing itself from the embassy's statement, Mitt Romney responds by proclaiming: "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was... to sympathise with those who waged the attacks."
12 September, morning After it emerges that Americans, including a US ambassador, have been killed in Libya, Mr Romney condemns the violence – but stands by his statement the previous day, saying it was "akin to apology".
12 September, evening Mr Obama responds by telling the CBS TV network that his Republican opponent "seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later".
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