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September 13, 2012

3 am Call Waiting
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s Jim Fallows wrote that the response to attacks on U.S. Embassies in Cairo and Benghazi was Mitt Romney’s three am phone call, and that his instinct to jump the gun on politicizing the attacks, then double down the next morning, amounted to flunking the “3 am call” test of leadership that Hillary Clinton posed to Barack Obama in the 2008 primary. (Oh, for those genteel days!)

In the last day, world leaders have been burning up that 3 am hotline. Late last night, President Obama spoke to Libya’s interim leader, who apologized for his government’s failure to protect Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team. The message Obama had to deliver: someone will pay for this. Your sovereignty will not get in the way of that. And we will do what we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

That was a piece of cake compared to the call that followed, with Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, who unlike his Libyan colleague had waited late into the day to express regret for the damage done and his government’s failure to protect our embassy – even as his political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was calling for more protests today and tomorrow.  We can extrapolate the message here from an interview Obama gave to Telemundo:  Egypt is neither an ally nor an enemy. If it fails to protect our embassy, however, that would be “a real big problem.”

Then Obama would have gotten the word – likely in person – that a foreshadowed protest and assault on our embassy in Sanaa, Yemen was underway. Another round of calls, another leadership challenge – make sure our diplomats and Marines on the ground have the support they need, not backbiting criticism as they are under fire.

Don’t roll over and go back to sleep just yet, though. In Beijing, today the Chinese government finally allowed a public mention of what has been gossiped about for ten days – the man tapped as China’s next leader has dropped out of public sight. He is rumored to have a heart attack. If the CIA knows that for sure, they will have sent someone in to brief Obama, who with his team has difficult choices to make. Can he – or someone – speak to China’s current leaders frankly about this?  Is that too big a loss of face? How can the two leaderships work together to steady global financial markets and prevent North Korea from acting out while its patron is occupied? At the same time, what steadying message must Obama give to American allies around the Pacific?

You don’t have to be a Democrat, or a political junkie, to think that the events of the last 48 hours raise serious questions about how Mitt Romney and his closest advisors – the ones who are “absolutely behind” the decision to go after Embassy Cairo staff, and the ones who spent yesterday criticizing it off-the-record – would handle that red phone ringing off the hook.

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