Obama throws Rice at media, distracts reporters from White House silence on Egypt

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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White House officials have reignited the post-Benghazi furor over a low-budget anti-Islam YouTube video just as President Barack Obama’s signature Muslim-outreach strategy is facing a disastrous and humiliating collapse on global TV.

The Obama administration stepped up its rope-a-dope media tactic Nov. 27 and Nov. 28 when White House officials pushed U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice back out in front of the media’s cameras.

That action drew the media’s attention away from Egypt and towards Rice, a telegenic, African-American woman who now faces dramatic GOP criticism for her actions on Sept. 16, seven weeks before the 2012 election.

She visited five Sunday talk shows that day, claiming jihadis’ shocking destruction of two U.S. facilities at Benghazi, and the death of four Americans, were caused by Muslims angry over the video, which mocked the Muslim prophet Muhammad. (RELATED: Obama campaign team defends Susan Rice on Benghazi cover-up)

Her claim immediately redirected major media outlets’ collective attention away from Obama’s Arab-region policies, which had allowed various jihadi groups to congregate in Libya and Egypt.

Without Rice as a distraction, the media’s attention to Arab turmoil could have undermined Obama’s campaign-trail reminders that he had ordered the successful killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Partly because of Rice’s misdirection, most pre-election media coverage of Benghazi became a tangled dispute over who knew what and said what on TV, in the Rose Garden and in the White House’s back rooms. The dispute also protected Obama from an aggressive question by Gov. Mitt Romney during a presidential debate.

Even the New York Times, ordinarily a reliable Obama cheerleader, acknowledged the resulting shift in the media’s focus.

“The most important questions about Benghazi … have largely gotten lost: Were requests for greater security for diplomats in Libya ignored? Even if Al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan has been decimated, what threat is posed by its affiliates and imitators in other countries where they have taken refuge? How can crucial diplomacy be conducted amid the dangerous chaos that has followed the toppling of dictators across the Arab world?” read a Nov. 28 Times “news analysis” article.

Yet Rice and her tale of the video are back in the news as pro-democracy demonstrators rush into Cairo’s streets to protest the Nov. 22 coup by Egypt’s narrowly elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who declared his decisions to be immune from judicial review.

Roughly 200,000 Egyptian protesters hit the streets Nov. 28.

In turn, Morsi’s Islamist allies are calling for massive protests on Friday, and may persuade 500,000 supporters to swarm Cairo’s streets. They’re also rushing to draft a new Islamist constitution whose completion would sidestep potential objections by the judiciary.

Islamists want to impose an Islamic theocracy similar to Iran’s.

Under an Islamic constitution, Shariah Muslim law would create an apartheid-like society where trained clerics and observant men would rule over Muslim women and roughly 8 million Christians. They would also control entrepreneurs, professionals and anyone who does not comply with Islam’ myriad social strictures.

Western-style rights, free speech and equality would be subordinated to Koranic texts, and jihad would be endorsed as a personal religious obligation for Muslims.

The stakes are high for 72 million Egyptians, plus Israelis, Europeans and Americans living there.

But Obama has made no public response to the coup, despite his intervention against Egypt’s military strongman in 2010 and early 2011, and despite his endorsement of Morsi’s narrow 52 percent to 48 percent victory in the June 2012 presidential election. (RELATED: White House silent as Egypt’s president grabs power, moves toward Shariah Islamic law)

Obama had not called Morsi by Monday, even though the two spoke six times during the few days prior to the coup, working to stop Israel’s counterattack against Morsi’s ideological allies in Gaza.

The president and his administration also have not provided any direct rhetorical support for Egypt’s pro-democracy groups, despite declarations in 2008 and 2009 that he wanted to help Arab countries shake off dictatorships.

Those declarations were showcased in Obama’s “New Beginning” strategy, which sought to promote democracy, revive Arab countries and shrink the influence of jihadi groups.

“For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. … Together you represent the harmony between tradition and progress,” Obama announced in a much-touted June 2009 speech in Cairo.

“I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind, and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose,” he declared towards the end of his speech.

“Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere,” he said.

Even as Obama has avoided any comment on the Egyptian coup, he and his deputies have made sure to put Rice in front of the media’s cameras.

On Nov 27, administration officials sent her to answer questions from skeptical GOP senators, and to tell them that her Sept. 16 claim was factually incorrect. Carney stoked the resulting media frenzy by declaring that “there are no unanswered questions about Ambassador Rice’s appearance on Sunday [TV] shows.”

The next day, Nov. 28, Carney recycled the manufactured drama by slamming what he said is a “misplaced obsession and focus on administration officials’ appearance on Sunday shows … [that] is largely driven by political considerations.”

Carney carried reporters along, and on Nov. 28, one used a rare opportunity to question Obama about Rice — but not Morsi.

“Susan Rice is extraordinary — couldn’t be prouder of the job she’s done,” Obama responded, while sitting with his cabinet.

On Tuesday, Carney boosted the White House’s focus on the YouTube video by claiming it also caused the Sept. 11 riot at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

“As you know, the breach of our embassy in Cairo was directly in response to the video and was started as a protest outside of our embassy in Cairo,” Carney said.

In fact, the embassy protest was announced Aug. 30 by Jamaa Islamiya, a State Department-designated terrorist group, to demand that U.S. officials release their religious leader from a U.S. jail, according to Eric Trager, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who monitors Islamist groups.

Since 1995, that leader, Omar abdel Rahman, also known as the ‘blind sheikh,” has been serving a life sentence for conspiracy to cause more jihadi attacks in New York.

The group was free to riot outside the embassy because Morsi allowed them to do so. For example, Morsi had released at least one of the Islamist organizers — a brother of al-Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahri — from an Egyptian jail. Morsi’s police also did not rush to disperse the rioters.

After the Sept 11 attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, U.S. law enforcement officials helped jail the immigrant maker of the anti-Islam video. He was later sentenced to a year in jail for violating his parole from an earlier conviction.

Free-speech advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union and in Hollywood — most of whom aligned themselves with Obama — have not protested the filmmaker’s jailing.

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