If reports are true, Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was one of four diplomats killed yesterday in a rocket strike in Benghazi. This is awful, calamitous, horrible news in a hundred different ways, not only for his family and for the Foreign Service in which he served so honorably, but when it comes to the most fundamental rule of relations between countries from time immemorial—which is that their emissaries are guaranteed safe passage and safe conduct when they travel on behalf of their own governments. We can presume Stevens and his colleagues were not killed by the Libyan government, because if that were the case, this would be nothing less than an act of war that required a response.
As we saw yesterday in Cairo, with the assault on the U.S. embassy there on the pretext of a cinematic offense against the Prophet, the United States has entered a new time of testing in the long war against Islamism—with assaults on official U.S. property and U.S. personnel. Such tests have always been highly problematic for us; before this becomes an occasion to blame Barack Obama’s weakness and vascillation, it’s worth remembering that the United States has never handled it well. In the 1960s, radicals attacking U.S. embassies became a kind of running joke. The joke ended in 1979 with the taking of the hostages in Iran, which was a state action in the guise of a radical private action.
But after yesterday, the test is Obama’s.
The strange spectacle of the dreadful initial response from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo—apologizing for an offense that the United States did not offer and that under any circumstances would not justify an attack—followed by a White House disavowal six hours later (“we didn’t clear it