As I write, Al Jazeera is reporting that Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was killed amid an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi along with three others. Video and screen captures, supposedly of his body, are circulating on Twitter. Libya's nascent government has roundly condemned the assault, and the Libyan army engaged in fierce clashes with an Islamist militia late into the night. According to Al Jazeera, the bodies were flown out of the country. (The State Department last night confirmed a death in Benghazi, but did not mention Stevens.)
This is, obviously, a terrible tragedy and a shocking turn of events on a day when Americans mourned those killed 11 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. Stevens was by all accounts a popular diplomat, having established the U.S. presence in Benghazi during the war and been an avid supporter of the opposition. Here's a video introducing him to Libyans.
What makes the deaths all the more tragic is that they will inevitably become politicized. On Tuesday, conservative websites were highly critical of a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that came ahead of a protest where demonstrators breached the embassy's walls in a moment reminiscent of 1979 in Iran. Liz Cheney and the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee joined in, accusing the administration of issuing an "apology" for a bizarre and mysterious film attacking the Prophet Mohammed that served as a pretext for the protests. And the Romney campaign issued its own statement. Wednesday will likely bring more finger-pointing.
For me, the embassy assaults are a sobering reminder not only of the deep anger and dysfunction that plagues the broader Middle East, but of the enormous difficulty the United States has in dealing with this part of the world. The level of distrust and fury toward America is not the sort of thing you heal with a speech or two. And to make matters worse, there will always be groups that exploit things that have no connection whatsoever to U.S. government policy, like this anti-Islamic film.
The Obama administration must tread delicately during this heated political season. This crude film -- which "portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile and fraud," as the Wall Street Journal put it -- may have been obscure before, but it's not anymore. Afghan President Karzai has already issued a statement condemning the movie -- but not the embassy attacks. Radical Islamist groups and countries like Iran will be looking to exploit the situation, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I suspect this won't be the last time somebody tries to breach the walls of a U.S. facility abroad this year. And there will inevitably be questions about the intelligence warnings and the lack of security in Benghazi and Cairo, to say nothing of the broader concerns raised about America's relationship with these new "democracies." But the White House needs to be smart and above all careful -- it can't let its response be dictated by the exigencies of the election back home.