An Israeli-American filmmaker’s anti-Islam screed, promoted by radical pastor Terry Jones, sparked outrage in Libya and Egypt … and handed Mitt Romney a September Surprise. (More)

Nutshell: Embassy Protests a September Surprise

The phrase “October Surprise” is political jargon for news events that can sway an election. Yesterday’s protests at U.S. embassies in Libya and Egypt – in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed – may well reshuffle the political deck for November.

The story begins with a film by Sam Bacile, whom the Wall Street Journal describes as an Israeli-American real estate developer living in California. Bacile raised an estimated $5 million to make the two-hour movie that, he claims, “exposes the hypocrisies of Islam.” The New York Times describes the film as “amateurish.” In it, an actor portrays the prophet Mohammed as a homosexual who advocates child slavery and extramarital sex for himself in the name of religion.

The film went largely unnoticed until radical pastor Terry Jones began promoting it. Last year, Jones burned a copy of the Qu’ran outside his church – despite warnings from U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan that doing so would put U.S. troops at risk – sparking protests that killed three United Nations workers and four security guards at the U.N. headquarters in Kabul. Jones announced yesterday that he would show a 13-minute trailer of the film at his church.

Before the protests began, the U.S. embassy in Cairo released a statement denouncing the film. Once the attacks were underway, the Obama administration send the embassy statement was not authorized and issued a statement that condemned both the film and the violent protests.

Predictably, Mitt Romney pounced on the initial Cairo embassy statement:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. 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 fact that the Cairo statement was released before the protests – in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent violence – did not matter to Romney. His polling numbers had been sliding since the Democratic National Convention, and his campaign see this event as confirming their false claim of Obama apologizing for the U.S. Nor will the timing of the Cairo statement matter to the GOP base, judging by reader comments at the news links above, many of whom demanded the president take a hardline defense of free speech here in the U.S., no matter the consequences for U.S. personnel overseas.

President Obama now faces a difficult challenge. He must demand justice for the murdered State Department official, cool the tensions to prevent further violence, and denounce hatemongers like Bacile and Jones while affirming freedom of speech and religion. That is a slender tightrope to walk.

In a less brazenly partisan political environment, Romney and other Republican leaders might stand with the president in denouncing both the violence and the hateful provocation that sparked it. But with Romney a 4:1 electoral underdog with just 55 days left to the election, he will almost certainly to shake that tightrope at every opportunity, hoping for a diplomatic blunder that worsens the situation in Libya and Egypt … and betters his electoral odds.

UPDATEPresident Obama’s statement this morning:

I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.

I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.

On a personal note, Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States. Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi. As Ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya’s transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice. I am profoundly grateful for his service to my Administration, and deeply saddened by this loss.

The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe. As we stand united with their families, let us now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward.