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The Politics of Foreign Policy: Campaigns Get Combative Over Embassy Attacks

The two major presidential candidates responded to news of attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, emphasizing their foreign policy differences in the process. Judy Woodruff talks to former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman and former ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns about the campaigns’ responses.

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    And we take a look at how the explosive events in Libya spilled over onto the campaign trail. As we reported earlier, the Romney camp started the spat last night, and it picked up from there.

    We asked both campaigns to suggest a spokesperson to explain their side.

    And joining us are former Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota. He's an adviser to the Romney campaign. And longtime diplomat and former Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns.

    And just to clarify, you're supporting the president, but you're not part of the campaign.

    NICHOLAS BURNS, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: That's right.


    So, let me start with you, Senator Coleman.

    Last night, what provoked the Romney camp to issue a statement criticizing a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and criticizing the Obama administration about something that had come out hours earlier?

    NORM COLEMAN, former U.S. Senator, R-Minn.: Well, first, the embassy is part of the Obama administration. I think, last I heard, the State Department was still part of the administration.

    And the statement that came out of the State Department was absolutely outrageous. It was a statement sympathizing with the protesters, rather than defending American sovereignty and American values. And so the governor thought it is appropriate that — it's never too early to defend American values.

    What's fascinating about that is the Obama administration then distanced itself from that statement, I believe after Gov. Romney issued his statement.

    And I will say this. I know Ambassador Patterson very, very well. I worked with her in Colombia. I worked with the White House.


    This is the ambassador to Egypt.


    To Egypt.

    And this is Norm Coleman speaking, but you don't send those statements out without clearing them with the White House. I don't think Ambassador Burns would be sending a statement like that out.

    So that was a statement. It was an outrageous statement, and the governor said what should have been said. And, interestingly enough, the White House on its own then also then separated itself from that statement later on.


    You're saying — your point is that the embassy statement was sympathizing with the protesters.

    So why was it wrong for the administration to do that?


    Well, first of all, Judy, I just want to say, a tragic day for the United States and for the United States Foreign Service. We lost a great young ambassador and three outstanding diplomats.

    It's one of the blackest days in the history of the American Foreign Service, and we go all the way back to the founding of this country.


    … start there.


    And I want to agree with the ambassador on that, too, by the way, absolutely.


    I want to start there.

    Look, I watched President Obama's statement, and I watched Secretary Clinton's statement. President Obama is running against Governor Romney. Governor Romney is not running against the American Embassy in Cairo.

    The statements made by the president and the secretary of state in no way, shape, or form apologized — that was the charge — for the United States or sympathized with the terrorists.

    And it's important to get the chronology right. The statement made by the embassy in Cairo was issued before the demonstrations. And let's put ourselves in their shoes. They have a big demonstrations coming.

    They evacuated the embassy. They're worried about physical violence. They simply were trying to say, we don't agree with this film in California that's inciting violence.

    I would — I don't think it was right for Gov. Romney to have just jumped in and suddenly judged our embassy when he didn't know all the facts.


    Did the Romney campaign know the timing of this before it issued that criticism?


    Of course it knew the timing.

    What is fascinating is that the Obama administration comes back and only separates itself from this statement. And there was no separation from the embassy from the time they issued that statement — and the demonstration was going on — until after Gov. Romney says, you know something, this is outrageous.

    They did sympathize. Their focus wasn't on the fact that — at any time before Gov. Romney issued his statement, their focus was not on the fact that the embassy walls are scaled, that the American flag is torn down, that a black flag is put up saying "God is Allah," until Gov. Romney says this is outrageous.

    And, first, again, first, what Gov. Romney said, and today made it very clear, we mourn the death of the ambassador and three others. That's critical. That's the most important thing here.

    But then beyond that, in terms of American policy and American values, in a Romney administration, that kind of statement is not going to be coming out of American embassies.


    But wasn't the timing important here? And because the statement was issued hours before there was a breach of the embassy. I mean, I don't want to put words in the mouths of either one of you.


    Well, it was.

    And here's what I think happened. Obviously, there's this film that was produced in California, vile, hateful film, deriding the Prophet Mohammad. There are a billion Muslims in the world. This incited demonstrations. The embassy in Cairo knew a demonstration was coming.

    They are just trying to protect themselves by essentially saying in this statement, as I read it today, the United States government doesn't support this hateful film that was made. They're trying to protect themselves.

    Now, maybe the statement wasn't perfect, but I think — and, look, I have worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations. I'm not a political person. I think that Gov. Romney made a mistake by just jumping in and second-guessing our embassy at a time when it was being attacked. I think he should have waited for all the facts to come out.


    What about that point?


    The point again is that the Obama administration, the embassy, until the time that Gov. Romney said this statement is outrageous did they take another approach, did they take another look at this thing, that their approach, from the beginning, from the beginning, with the demonstrators, by the way, who are out there all the time, their statement is to focus on something that some crazy guy did in America.

    In America, we have freedom of speech. People can say…


    You mean the person who made this video.


    Who made the film, which is outrageous, which is terrible.

    But that's — we have that in America. It's called freedom of speech. People are going to say terrible things.

    But from the embassy, from the president, from the administration, when that kind of — you don't — what you do is you are providing some kind of almost equivalency here, that somehow having this kind of statement gives some justification to whatever acts then took place.

    And there was no, no clarification until Gov. Romney stepped forward and said this simply isn't right. As I said before, it's never too early to stand for American values.


    I have great respect for Senator Coleman. I just have to disagree on this one.

    I have served in embassy Cairo and other embassies. There are times, because of the time difference, embassies don't call back to Washington and ask them to bless or agree with a statement. You have to, in an emergency, make the call you make.

    I'm just trying to say I think that Gov. Romney should focus on President Obama, and not on the actions of an embassy under siege, under great tension.

    As I looked at President Obama's statement today and Secretary Clinton's, they clearly came out.

    The first thing they did was condemn terrorism and protect our people and call for the governments of Libya and Egypt to be accountable and to arrest these people and bring them to justice.

    I think that's the proper way for the United States government to work, and the governor should have focused on that.


    Wait. We're focused on this portion of the governor's statement. What the governor is also focused on is leadership in his statement.

    And the fact is the Middle East is a mess.

    The Israeli — we're dealing with Israel right now where the prime minister, can he get a meeting with the president or not? This president had played 160 — 160 fund-raisers, 100 rounds of golf, and perhaps he can't get a meeting with the Israeli prime minister?

    Iran is a mess. Syria — we subcontracted our Syrian policy to Kofi Annan. So, this is — the statement of Gov. Romney wasn't just about condemning or saying that we should have stood up for American values.

    He talked about the failure of American leadership.

    And, Ambassador, is the Middle East doing much better today than it was four years ago? I don't think so. I don't think Egypt is doing better. I don't think that Iran is further away from having a nuclear weapon. I don't think the Israeli prime minister is more confident in American support.




    I don't think it's a proper — or appropriate to somehow say that the United States government is in control of every event in the Middle East.

    You can't ask the question, are — is the Middle East better off four years ago today, or whenever, when the United States is one actor, albeit a very important one. Let's judge the administration fairly.

    They got the Arab revolutions just about right. They did the right thing in Egypt. They certainly did the right thing in intervening in Libya.

    And one of the cruel ironies here and a reason we shouldn't inject politics, in my view, is that we helped the Libyan people to gain their freedom. We were the ones who helped throw Gadhafi out.

    And it was good to see the Libyan government make that statement today that they regretted this and apologized for it. It was very disappointing to see that Mohammed Morsi, the new president of Egypt, didn't apologize.


    We're going to have to leave it there.

    Gentlemen, we thank you both for being with us. Ambassador — Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Senator Norm Coleman, we thank you both.


    Thank you.


    And you can watch today's comments by President Obama, by Secretary of State Clinton and Mitt Romney on our website.

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