Obama caves to Romney, embraces free speech for critics of Islam

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama used Air Force One to conduct a policy loop-de-loop Wednesday, asserting in a CBS interview that he supports Americans’ right to criticize Islam, following almost 18 hours of determined condemnation from Team Romney and damaging news from Egypt and Libya.

“We believe in the First Amendment,” Obama told CBS’s Steve Kroft during an interview arranged days earlier.

“It is one of the hallmarks of our Constitution that I’m sworn to uphold, and so we are always going to uphold the rights for individuals to speak their mind,” he said, according to a transcript narrated by White House spokesman Jay Carney.

The transcript was released several hours after Obama had a Rose garden statement to condemn criticism of Islam.

Carney read the transcript during an impromptu press conference aboard Air Force One as it carried Obama to a fundraiser in Las Vegas.

In another concession to critics of his outreach to Islamist groups, Obama also backed away from Egypt’s Islamist government, which he has supported throughout 2012.

“I don’t think we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” Obama said in an Sept. 12 interview with the Spanish-language channel Telemundo.

“They are a new government that’s trying to find its way.”

The interview is to be broadcast Sept. 13.

The controversy began Sept. 11 when officials at the U.S. embassy in Cairo tried to head off a planned Islamist protest by describing Americans’ criticism of Islam as an “abuse” of the nation’s First Amendment.

Obama’s sudden reversal came once Gov. Mitt Romney and his deputies slammed the president for not defending Americans’ free speech rights amid threats of violence from militant Islamists.

In the CBS transcript, Obama minimized his longstanding condemnation of movies and books that criticize Islam.

In September 2010, for example, he condemned an anti-Islam protest during a White House press conference, saying “the idea that we would burn the sacred texts of someone else’s religion … is contrary to what this nation is founded upon, and my hope is that this individual [planning a Quran-burning] prays on it and refrains from doing it.”

The morning of his Sept. 12 about-face, Obama had used a Rose Garden event to restate his opposition to criticism of Islam. “Since our founding, the U.S. has been a nation that respects all faiths and rejects all effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” he claimed, without recognizing the legal gulf between individual’s free speech rights and the constitutional limits on government-sanctioned religious activity.

At Wednesday’s Rose Garden event, Obama turned his back on questions from the press. (RELATED: Obama again hits Libya attackers, American free speech)

In contrast, Romney took questions from hostile reporters at an earlier event, where he continued his criticism, saying “I think it is a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

In the CBS interview, Obama only briefly mentioned his opposition to criticisms of Islam.

Individual Americans have the freedom to speak their mind, he said, referring to the producer of a low-budget video that mocked the Islamic prophet Muhammad. “This film is not representative of who we are and our values, and I think it’s important for us to communicate that,” he said.

During the interview, Obama obscured his reversal on the First Amendment by accusing Romney of politicizing his administration’s policies.

“Most Americans, Democrats or Republicans, understand that there are times where we set politics aside, and one of those is when we’ve got a direct threat to American personnel who are overseas,” he told Kroft, shortly before he claimed that “it appears that Governor Romney didn’t have his facts right.”

Obama suggested that Romney misrepresented the submissive statement from the Cairo embassy.

The Cairo embassy sent out “a press release saying that the film that had disturbed so many Muslims around the world wasn’t representative of what Americans believe about Islam, in an effort to cool the situation down,” Obama claimed.

In fact, the message labeled criticism of Islam as “abuse.”

“Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy [and] we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” said the Cairo embassy statement, which was released and reiterated before and during the Islamist riot.

The embassy later deleted a statement from its Twitter account in which it said it stood by that statement.

Obama also suggested Romney unfairly blamed local embassy officials.

The Cairo statement “didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton; it came from folks on the ground who are potentially in danger,” Obama said.

But Romney was careful to blame the administration, not low-level embassy personnel, for the embassy’s submissive statement.

Romney’s late-night criticism as the clock passed midnight into Sept. 12 said “it is 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 president’s reversal and defensive maneuvering came after a day of damaging news for Obama.

In Libya, four U.S. officials — including the ambassador — were killed and three were injured late Sept. 11 at an unprotected consulate in Benghazi, far from a contingent of U.S. Marines at the embassy in the capital city of Tripoli.

The Benghazi consulate, however, was guarded by armed Libyans whose behavior prompted one of the four dead U.S. officials to suspect an impending betrayal.

On Sept. 11, the official, Sean Smith, sent an Internet message to a friend in the United States, saying “assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking picture,” according to a statement by his friend, dubbed “The Mittani” in an online gaming community.

The next day, Obama tacitly acknowledge the lack of protection by ordering reinforcements to travel to that embassy.

A crowd of Islamists rioted at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, while urging the release of the so-called “Blind Sheikh” — a top Egyptian jihadi who was jailed by the U.S. in 1995 — and also complaining about the California-produced video.

The rioters invaded the embassy, burned the U.S. flag and hoisted their own jihad banner. They included the brother of al-Qaida’s top leader, and the embassy was left unprotected by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, which Obama and his deputies have supported.

The following day, Sept. 12, Egyptian government officials refused to apologize for failing to stop the lengthy attack in downtown Cairo, and instead pressed Obama to punish the producer of the anti-Islam video.

“We ask the American government to take a firm position toward this film’s producers within the framework of international charters that criminalize acts that stir strife on the basis of race, color or religion,” Prime Minister Hisham Kandil said on Sept. 12, according to a Reuters report.

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