I don’t envy the position Larry Schwartz finds himself in right now.
Schwartz, the Senior PAO and person responsible for press releases and social media at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, has been taking a lot of heat the past few days. As the smoke clears, we are now finding out that much of the uproar has been unfounded and as a result of a classic news hijack for political gain. But Thursday, Schwartz really crossed the line, and now he may be facing repercussions as the Obama administration moves to quell the media scrutiny around the situation, fend off attacks from the right, and repair damage with the Egyptian government.
Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the political firestorm that erupted after Mitt Romney made comments regarding a press release and tweets sent out from the embassy on Tuesday. To recap it quickly, Schwartz sent out a statement and an accompanying summarizing tweet at 12:18 p.m. Cairo time on Tuesday, according to this Foreign Policy article. The statement read:
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
More than twelve hours later, at 12:30 a.m., Schwartz made a more controversial tweet:
According to the aforementioned FP article, neither of the messages was approved by Washington, but Schwartz ran them anyway (they’ve has since been removed).
After the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya not long after the events in Cairo, what was initially a rather small roller in the ocean of U.S. news became a surging tidal wave as the media began talking about the protests all over the Arab world, the infamous film blamed for them all, and what we should do next.
Mitt Romney jumped on the opportunity and lambasted Obama for being “apologetic” to the protesters and not standing up for American values like free speech. It was a political move, and an obvious news hijack. The facts are now out that the press release was preemptive, and that Schwartz disobeyed orders. Also, reports like this one from Erik Wemple, saying the release was in no way an apology anyways, are surfacing all over. Regardless, the Romney campaign has used it to start a larger debate questioning Obama’s leadership in the Arab world as a whole.
As for Schwartz and his decision to send out the press release prior to protests beginning, he was spot on. He did what he could to calm down what was probably a growing rumor that something was going to happen regarding the offensive nature of “The Innocence of Muslims”. There are rumblings that the film may have been used as a scapegoat for a previously organized protest, but let’s not bother with that. The man acted on information, and acted well.
In my opinion, you can’t blame him for sticking by his statement later, and adding that the embassy condemned the breach. To his credit, President Obama recently said, “And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.” Schwartz and his colleagues were the ones dealing with a breach of security, and he did what he felt necessary to condemn it. In addition, it follows an acceptable line of thought while under attack. Romney can talk all he wants about promoting free speech, but when a mob is attacking your compound, you might not want to be spouting American rhetoric. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what Washington wanted it to be, but it surely wasn’t overly detrimental.
At this point in the sequence of events, it appeared Schwartz would have his reputation restored. He was under pressure and he did what he thought he had to do.
But then, Thursday happened, and the media is once again on his case.
Somehow, after seemingly making it out unscathed, it appears Schwartz was actually only in the eye of the storm. This article in The Atlantic, as well as many others, documented this exchange between @USEmbassyCairo and @Ikhwanweb, the official handle for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood:
I want to stop here and note a few things. Firstly, as of March 2012, the entire country of Egypt had 215,000 users on Twitter. The Twitter account for @USEmbassyCairo has a little over 28,000 followers, and at first glance, it seems a large number of them are more than likely not located in Egypt. A relatively tiny number of Egyptians in relation to the population of the country are seeing these posts, and yet the U.S. media coverage of them is more than superfluous.
Because of that, internet posts are meaningful and permanent. Someone always gets a screen grab of an ill-thought-out tweet, and it appears that such a situation is what happened yesterday. I have no idea what the Arabic feeds of the Muslim Brotherhood said, but I know that a knee-jerk response from an American diplomat to the current party-in-power over a public forum is definitely not what the Obama administration is looking for right now.
The move by Schwartz, who is undoubtedly under a lot of stress, insinuates that the party had some form of involvement with, or was instigating, the protests on their Arabic feeds. And that now carries even more weight, considering the Cairo protests seemed to fuel others, and have resulted in American deaths. Such an insinuation may have the propensity to create further tensions between the governments and/or stir the emotions of what is an already volatile Egyptian public.
More likely, the bigger headache for President Obama will be this incident giving the Republican party more fuel for their fire in saying the current administration has mishandled Middle East/North Africa affairs on a larger scale. Twitter is used as a device of public diplomacy by the State Department, and Schwartz just turned 180 degrees and called out the recently-elected Egyptian government for at best, not responding well to the situation, and at worst, contributing to the protests. Even if that information was to exist (and I am in no way saying it actually does), Twitter is surely not the right medium to address it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Romney and his advisors make haste in using that information to further their cause, possibly by saying Obama should have removed Schwartz after the first round of unapproved messages.
It appears President Obama has to do a little more damage-control than originally thought. I’m interested to see how this plays out, what Schwartz will face in the days ahead, if there will be an official response from the Muslim Brotherhood, and if the Romney campaign will triple-down on their cries of poor management by Obama.
All of the political bickering aside, we as Americans are all mourning the loss of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone S. Woods. Let us all hope that the other protests end peacefully, and that U.S-Egypt, and U.S.-Arab relations in general manage to make it out of this mess, despite the Twitter gaffes.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not ofTake Five, IPDGC or GWU.