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Turmoil in the Middle East

Aired September 13, 2012 - 21:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: These are the streets of Cairo. Not far from the U.S. embassy where the crisis is getting worse tonight. Another night of protest after a day that saw hundreds of injuries among police and protesters.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in for Piers Morgan. Demonstrations across the region from Iran and Iraq to Gaza, to Yemen, to Libya and Morocco, a wave of anti-American anger that has cost the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, two of them former U.S. Navy SEALs.

Meanwhile, President Obama spoke out about all of this on the campaign trail today.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: People around the world to hear me, to all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. It will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.


BLITZER: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tonight paid tribute to the two security personnel killed alongside Ambassador Chris Stevens. And in Benghazi, they were former Navy SEALs, both of them who were killed, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Secretary Clinton went on to condemn the attack and the ongoing violence in the region, saying this, among other things, this violence should shock the conscience of people of all faiths and traditions. People of conscience and goodwill every must stand together in these difficult days against violence, hate and division."

We've got two reporters covering this story for us. Arwa Damon is in Tripoli. Ben Wedeman is in Cairo -- Cairo.

Arwa, you're joining us in the -- on the phone first. Let me go to Arwa.

You're in Benghazi for us actually right now. What's the scene like there?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, everyone that we've been speaking to, Wolf, and I literally just landed here a few hours ago, is incredibly distraught over what took place. They are in utter shock and really want to make clear just how anguished they are over what transpired.

They want the world to know that this is not Libya, this is not an action that was supported by the vast majority of Libyans. This most certainly is not why they want revolution against Gadhafi. Many of them reiterating the fact that they do expect their (INAUDIBLE) to the United States to NATO for their aid and in fact allowing them to bring down Gadhafi and his entire regime.

That being said, they're also, all of them want to see their government disarm with these gangs that are roaming about with basically pure impunity. Some of these gangs are remnants of the revolutionary forces that were established during the fighting that took place that has been reluctant to lay down their weapons for a variety of reasons. Some of them are more extremist entities that have emerged from these evolutionary groups or formed separately from them. Either way this most certainly is bearing forces (INAUDIBLE), this sinister undervalue that exist in Libya and that is these armed entities that operate outside of the authority of the government itself.

The realization here very much that this is not the path they want the nation to go on, that the government must prove itself to the people by putting these individuals to justice, by taking these weapons off the street but, again, Wolf, not a lot of faith at this point in time that the government is actually going to be able to accomplish that.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon on the scene for us in Benghazi. Please be careful over there. We'll check back with you.

Ben Wedeman is in Cairo right now. They're getting ready for Friday morning prayers.

Ben, set the scene for us. What's going on right now?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is 3:00 in the morning here, Wolf. And the clashes continue between the protesters outside the American embassy. At this point, they are about 300 yards away from the embassy kept at bay by the Egyptian security forces. But it appears this is going to go on all night.

Now, of course, Friday after prayers, the Muslim Brotherhood is organizing nationwide protests. But they are stressing that those protests will be peaceful and away from the U.S. embassy, away from Tahrir Square. But it's difficult to really be assured that the protests will not continue outside the embassy and grow larger, given that it's Friday. Given that it's the weekend. After the Friday prayers.

And so we can, I think, continue to see more of this and probably tomorrow the protests will be larger and the Brotherhood will be challenged to try to keep them away from the embassy, away from this flash point area in the center of Cairo -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm really worried about those American diplomats and other personnel working at that U.S. embassy.

Ben, please be careful as well.

The turmoil in the Middle East has clearly put the focus squarely on foreign policy in the president race, at least for now.

Joining us now, Mitt Romney senior adviser, Dan Senor.

Dan, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: I couldn't help but notice the tone of Mitt Romney today in terms of his criticism of the administration, of the president, much more muted than it was yesterday. A deliberate shift?

SENOR: Well, I just think his overall critique is the same which is there's been a lot of uncertainty and mixed messages being sent throughout the region. The region is in the midst of turmoil right now. We've got awful news about the other Americans that were killed in the last 24 hours. And, you know, you look at where Iran is heading with the nuclear program, we look at Syria up in flames. You look at what's happening in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Libya.


BLITZER: At least today Mitt Romney thought because of this escalating violence and the potential -- we're approaching Friday morning prayers in the Muslim world, it's not a good time necessarily to hammer away as he did the day before.

SENOR: Well, he had a very specific -- on that -- on that day he had a very specific criticism, which was he was strongly critical of the statement that was put out by the administration, via the embassy in Egypt.

BLITZER: But after the administration withdrew that statement, why did he have to double down the next morning after we knew that the American ambassador and three other Americans were killed?

SENOR: Well, at the time his initial statement went out, we knew there have been --

BLITZER: At the initial statement --

SENOR: We knew there had been violence.

BLITZER: But why the next morning did he have to repeat it?

SENOR: The -- the embassy in Cairo had reissued the statement via social networks. It was still a point of disagreement. The White House had distanced themselves by the next day from the Cairo statement, from the Cairo embassy statement. He was disavowing a statement, too. He was not getting a lot of criticism and I think it was just fair to point out that there were major differences between the administration and Governor Romney on our overall approach at the Middle East, which was the nub of his criticism.

BLITZER: But do you have any criticism of the way the president has behaved, reacted since this crisis, the killing of the American ambassador and the others has unfolded? For example, deploying naval military ships to Libya and taking -- making the statements that he has made.

SENOR: I think, Wolf, you have to take a step back. We can get bogged down in the minute-to -minute developments. You have to take a step back and say, what is going on in the region and how did it happen? Over the last few years, President Obama has reached out to the region, thought he was going to make all these extremists in the region sort of fall in love with him, and be charmed by him and his presidency.

And we have sent really mixed messages both in terms of how we deploy our power in the region, deploy our influence. And the message we send to friends and allies, our allies think we are a little less reliable. And our adversaries think we should be tested.

That's -- what we've seen in the last three days is a product of policies that have been building over the last three years.

BLITZER: But we did --

SENOR: That basic criticism still is intact.

BLITZER: But we did see that Mitt Romney stepped back today from that. Yesterday, he didn't. And the question is, was that a mistake?

SENOR: Wolf, he made a criticism about a statement that came out of the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

BLITZER: But that's --

SENOR: Correct. The White House eventually criticized that statement. They disavowed that statement as well. So the idea that he was under some sort of fair criticism I think is just unfair. He disavowed a statement. The White House disavowed a statement. I guess ultimately one could argue on that particular issue they were ultimately on the same page.

BLITZER: Well, because the argument is at a time of national crisis, and this is a crisis that could escalate in the region, maybe it's better to put politics aside a little bit, as Ronald Reagan used to do as you well remember.

SENOR: First of all, this is a national crisis. We need to speak together with one another and try to come up with solutions about how to deal with this crisis. It is a real crisis. But the idea that we cannot have a national conversation about differences -- just last week at the Democratic convention, there were whole prime time addresses dedicated to criticizing Governor Romney for things he'd said about foreign policy while our fighting men and women are fighting in Afghanistan. The same was true in the 2008 election when our men and women were fighting in Iraq. There were, you know, criticisms made in the context of a campaign. One could understand in the context of a presidential campaign when we're dealing with weighty national issues, we should be able to have a national discussion --

BLITZER: Well, there will be one presidential debate focused in on foreign policy specifically as you well know.

Does Mitt Romney support continuing more than $1 billion a year in military and economic assistance to Egypt?

SENOR: Yes, well, it's much more. It's over $1 billion in military aide and then about a quarter of a billion dollars in the civilian aid and then you look at the OPEC --


BLITZER: Does Mitt Romney think that should go on?

SENOR: He believes that we should take a close look at conditioning that aid based on Egypt, the Egyptian government being a responsible player, responsible act in the region. What does that mean? Is it maintaining its commitments and its peace treaty with Israel? Is it protecting minorities, minority rights in Egypt? Is it being supportive of democratic institutions and institutions of civil society? Is it being a constructive actor in the region?

So there are big questions on all those fronts as it relates to Egypt since President Morsi has taken over. And he believes that our aid to the region, specifically our aid to the Egypt, should be conditioned on answers to those questions.

BLITZER: Our new CNN/ORC poll the other day showed that when it comes to foreign policy, President Obama gets 54 percent, Romney gets 42 percent. On this particular issue, and you're a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney, he's not doing so well.

SENOR: This is not about polls, this is not about politics. There are clear differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on a range of national security and foreign policy issues. And Governor Romney feels strongly about it. He believes that America's position in the world is weaker today than it was in January of 2009.

And if you look at events over the last few days, they illustrate how much chaos there is in the Middle East and the world and the governor is going to have a discussion with the president about how we arrived at this place regardless of what the polls said.

BLITZER: And starting, what, next week Romney will get classified national security briefings from the administration

SENOR: I am not going to comment on the -- on the briefings. But they are -- it is a tradition for the nominees, the vice presidential and the presidential nominees, to receive classified briefings. BLITZER: Yes. Right after the -- once they are the official nominees. When I met with Mitt Romney in Jerusalem, he told me he was looking forward to getting those briefings.

Dan Senor, thanks very much.

SENOR: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: President Obama took a stern tone out on the campaign trail today.


OBAMA: But we see on our televisions that there are still threats to the world -- in the world. And we've got to remain vigilant. That's why we have to be relentless in pursuing those who attacked us this week. That's also why so long as I am commander in chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known.


BLITZER: Joining us now, Tim Roemer, a former policy adviser to the Obama campaign, a former U.S. ambassador and a member of Congress formerly from India.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.

TIM ROEMER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO INDIA: Wolf, nice to see you. Two nights in a row.


ROEMER: Thanks for having me back.

BLITZER: Well, it's good to have you here. I want you to respond to what Mitt Romney told George Stephanopoulos today, because he was reacting to the criticism he received from President Obama.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What I said was exactly the same conclusion the White House reached, which was that the statement was inappropriate. That's why they backed away from it as well.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: They didn't say that it was showing sympathy for the attackers.

ROMNEY: But I think it was not directly applicable and appropriate for the setting. I think it should have been taken down. And apparently, the White House felt the same way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, and no direct response when the president says, you shoot first and aim later?

ROMNEY: Well, this is politics. I'm not going to worry about the campaign.


BLITZER: You accept his explanation of why he initially criticized the Obama administration?

ROEMER: Well, Wolf, look, you know, you wish that for 24 hours or 48 hours, people wouldn't seize on politics, that there'd be a moment for prayer, reflection, strong action by the commander in chief, and America comes together, rather than looking at polling numbers and trying to seize an opportunity.

We didn't do that after 9/11. We didn't point fingers at a mayor or a president. We came together in unity. And -- you know, you can score political points two or three days later. It shouldn't be pouncing on things in today's environment.


ROEMER: Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, let's be unified as Americans.

BLITZER: But national security is a huge issue out there. And this is a presidential race. You want to make sure the commander in chief, whether it's President Obama or Mitt Romney, is qualified. What's wrong with candidates arguing over national security?

ROEMER: I don't think there is a problem with arguing about national security. We are going to have presidential debates where it's time to talk about national security. And I think what the last 48 hours has shown, Wolf, is that, you know, primarily, I come from the Midwest. Primarily, this election is going to be about jobs. But I think it's also going to be about judgment.

It's going to be the judgment of the commander in chief. And I think the last of three years, the president has been steady, he has been decisive, he has been strong. And I think the last 48 hours have not shown those kind of qualities from Governor Romney.

BLITZER: You listened to Dan Senor, the former foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney. You listened to Mitt Romney, this president has not been decisive, he has not been strong. The argument being that U.S. national security interests, especially in the Middle East have been undermined because of his alleged weakness.

ROEMER: Let's look at the facts, Wolf. I know we'll hear that in campaigns when you're trying to score points. The president said in a debate and he was roundly criticized for it in 2008 that if he had a chance to get Osama bin Laden, even if he found him in another country in Pakistan, he would seize that opportunity.

BLITZER: One final question. You can clarify it for us. Yesterday, the president said Egypt is not an ally of the United States. Today, the State Department said, Egypt is an ally, a major non-NATO ally of the United States. Still there's new government in Egypt with President Morsi. Who is right? The president or the State Department?

ROEMER: Well, the president, I know, feels that Egypt is a partner. He talked, in fact, to President Morsi today. He talked about what Egypt needs to be doing as a partner. Egypt needs to be doing things such as abiding by their treaty with Israel, and respecting that treaty. That's extremely important to the president and extremely important to our national security.

I'm sure the president probably talked about the parameters that Egypt needs to show to move towards democracy, to respect human rights, to better protect our embassy in Cairo and come through with a local police force and troops that will protect our people there.

BLITZER: But as far as I know he's --

ROEMER: So he's having talks with leaders all over the world as commander in chief to try to make sure our people are protected overseas.

BLITZER: But as far as the State Department is concerned, Egypt still has that major non-NATO ally status, this new government as well. At least the State Department. And you're a former ambassador.

ROEMER: I'm --

BLITZER: You know the specific designation. Israel has that status, Australia. A bunch of other countries.

ROEMER: Correct, Wolf.

BLITZER: I don't know about India.

ROEMER: Well, as a former ambassador and as a former congressman, I know Congress is going to try to weigh in on this, too. And with $1.6 billion in aid pending, they are going to say, should we suspend parts of it, should we withhold parts of it? Are they going to abide by their treaty with Israel? Are they going to show real legitimate interest in protecting our embassy? That's a debate that a legislative branch should have.

BLITZER: And that issue, I think, the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign agree.

ROEMER: See? There are areas --

BLITZER: There are areas of agreement.

ROEMER: -- where Republicans and Democrats can and should work together.

BLITZER: Ambassador Roemer, thanks very much for coming in.

ROEMER: Pleasure, Wolf. Always great to see you.

BLITZER: Thank you. Anti-American protests today reaching as far as Iraq. Is it a sign of more to come? I'm going to speak about that and more with Paul Bremer, who is President Bush's top man in Baghdad.



HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue.


BLITZER: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking earlier in the day. Certainly, the unrest in the Middle East continuing in Cairo even as we speak, spreading as far as Iraq where hundreds of angry protesters flooded the streets today.

Joining us now is Paul Bremer, the former top U.S. official in Iraq.

And, Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: How worried are you about U.S. diplomats right now throughout North Africa and the Middle East? You were endangered when you were in Iraq as all of us remember starting back in 2003.

BREMER: Yes. Let me say, first of all, that I send my condolences to my colleagues who served and died in Libya, and Americans tend to forget that there are American diplomats putting their lives on the line all over the world every day. I think we should be concerned because what we are seeing now is the spread that started in two countries. Today, it moved to three or four more, including Iraq, which is quite a ways from North Africa.

And that spread is eerily reminiscent of what we all went through in the late 1970s.


BREMER: In -- well, not just in Iran, we had an ambassador killed in Kabul followed by the embassy in Islamabad being burned to the ground, followed by the takeover in Tehran. I mean these kinds of things have a way of spreading. And I think they are a mark of the fact that the administration has basically conveyed weakness in this region. And weakness always begets trouble.

BLITZER: So what should the administration in your opinion be doing?

BREMER: What it should be doing is what they're starting to do now. It took them a while to find their voice. I mean the president in his first Rose Garden speech said nothing about the attack in Egypt. There seems to still be confusion in the administration as to what exactly our relationship with Egypt is.

But the key problem is that the people who are opposed to us are Islamic extremists. The administration seems to be having trouble finding its voice recognizing this reality.

BLITZER: This is what I don't understand. The administration has launched -- President Obama has approved not only the killing of bin Laden, which was a sign of -- a decisive act, as you well know, but more drone attacks, these targeted killings of suspected terrorists out there whether in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, than all of the Bush administration combined. Isn't that an act -- a decisive act?

BREMER: Yes, but very restricted and very targeted. And the problem is weakness towards the states, towards states that are hostile to us.


BREMER: Starting with Iran.

BLITZER: But the sanctions are brutal right --

BREMER: Including China.

BLITZER: The economic sanctions and the diplomatic sanctions are really -- the people in Iran are really feeling these economic sanctions.

BREMER: Yes. But we are trying to persuade one person. Ayatollah Khomeini to stop his nuclear program, and he hasn't stopped it. So the sanctions, though they're tough, have had no effect on the purpose, which is to stop -- we're not doing them to hurt the Iranian people. We are doing them to have them stop the nuclear --


BLITZER: But what about -- what about the --

BREMER: International Atomic Energy -- just --

BLITZER: The covert operations against Iran. The cyber warfare, the other covert -- they've been pretty decisive.

BREMER: They have not stopped the nuclear --

BLITZER: They've set it back, though.

BREMER: They have not stopped the nuclear --

BLITZER: They haven't stopped it but they've set it back.

BREMER: Look, Wolf, you can -- you can make all the arguments you want about it but the pervasive view in this region, as we have seen with these attacks, is that we're weak. We have -- the administration has unwisely pulled our forces all out of Iraq. So we have very little influence there.

BLITZER: The Bush administration --


BLITZER: The Bush administration had that timeline as you well know.

BREMER: They pulled them all out. They had an opportunity to keep them there this year and they didn't.

BLITZER: The Iraqis said they didn't want them.

BREMER: Look, the administration made it pretty clear they didn't want it.

BLITZER: The Iraqis said they weren't going to give immunity to U.S. military personnel.

BREMER: There was a deal -- there was a deal to be made and they didn't make it. Then we're fighting for the first time, I am aware of, a war on our own self-imposed deadline in Afghanistan. Look, you know this part of the world, this part of the world understands strength and is very quick at receiving weakness.

We wouldn't have people going over walls in embassies all across this region if there wasn't a sense that America was withdrawing from the region and making ourselves look weak.

BLITZER: Was the --

BREMER: So these are -- these are consequences. That's what happens when you look weak.

BLITZER: Was the Arab Spring in your opinion worth it as far as the U.S. is concerned? In other words, is the U.S. potentially better off today following the removal of Gadhafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt, and what's going on potentially in Syria, Bashar al-Assad whose days presumably are numbered? Is the U.S. better off with these dictators gone or was it better off before?

BREMER: No. We're better off with them gone. And I think President Bush is the person who said first that we spent 40 years in this region with a policy that basically said we prefer stability to change. And I think the president correctly saw and Obama has embraced it as well that in fact change is in our long-term interest.

It was always going to be difficult. It was never going to be -- it's -- now the dictators are gone and now we have a bright light of democracy there. And one of the things this shows, particularly in Libya, is how unresolved the consequences of the Arab Spring still are. I mean there's a lot of work still to be done. This is not easy stuff.

BLITZER: Not just in Libya but in Egypt as well.

BREMER: And in Egypt.

BLITZER: Arguably the U.S.' steak in Egypt is a lot more important than in Libya right now.

BREMER: I agree. I agree it is.

BLITZER: Mr. Ambassador, thanks for coming in.

BREMER: Nice to be with you again.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Coming up, what the anti-American fervor in the Middle East could mean for the race for the White House. Is this a turning point in the campaign? Stay with us.



MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have heavy hearts across America today. And I want you to know things are going to get a lot better. But I also recognize that right now we are in mourning. We have lost four of our diplomats across the world. We are thinking about their families and those that they have left behind. What a tragedy.


BLITZER: A somewhat subdued Mitt Romney on the campaign trail today. That after he drew some heated criticism for blasting President Obama in the wake of the deaths of the U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens in Libya, three other Americans as well.

So is this a turning point in the campaign? Joining us now, the presidential historian Douglas Brinkley and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger. Clearly, Gloria, a change in tone today as opposed to yesterday. How important is this for Mitt Romney?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is an important moment for Mitt Romney. I still believe that this election is going to be about the economy, Wolf. It is not going to be about foreign policy. But I think that there are lots of Republicans also, including Democrats, who believe that Mitt Romney was too quick to speak, too quick to criticize, that he criticized a statement that was issued by the State Department, by the embassy, not by President Obama, and took that as President Obama apologizing.

And people say, you know what, he should have waited a little bit. So I think it gave the president an opening to use against him. By the way, there is a real issue of our policy post-Arab Spring, particularly with Egypt. And what Mitt Romney did was create a political side show when, in fact, he could have taken a serious issue to President Obama and still will probably do in the future. BLITZER: Because that controversial statement that was issued by just one official at the U.S. embassy in Cairo that was quickly disavowed.

Doug, how common is it for the challenger, the non-incumbent, the candidate, to be this aggressive in reacting to a foreign policy issue like Mitt Romney did this week?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I think it is really quite unique. And it tells you we are living in this speed age of Twitter feeds every minute, that you constantly want to respond. You don't want to get behind the new cycle. Hence, Mitt Romney clearly spoke too soon. His comments seem very churlish. And it hasn't been very well received.

He has -- Mitt Romney now has a foreign policy deficit. He bungled going to London at the time of the Olympics. Same problem, kind of speaking out of turn. But I don't think it's lethal in any way for him. He is going to have a chance, Wolf, in one of the debates to focus completely on foreign policy. But if I were the Romney campaign, I would start surrounding him by some foreign policy adults.

They have a great talent on the GOP side of veterans like James Baker, George Schultz, Brent Skowcroft, Robert Gates, people to consult, be seen with. They should be getting op-eds out there about what Romney foreign policy is.

Right now, it seems quite incoherent, except he is a hostage of the right wing and anything Obama does is wrong. And he overstepped the bounds, in my opinion, when he said that the president seemed to be siding with the terrorists in Cairo.

BLITZER: Gloria, in your conversations with Romney sources, have they expressed any regret about the way Romney handled this?

BORGER: No, they are not expressing any regret. And that's because they believe that they are being criticized for criticizing exactly the same thing, that statement from the embassy in Cairo, that President Obama ended up essentially disavowing.

But they actually took it a step further. And they're getting criticism from within their own ranks, because --


BORGER: What it makes it look like is that they are trying to pick a fight here with President Obama on foreign policy, and that they were looking for something and this was out there and they did it. And they acted too quickly.

BLITZER: In these elections, as you know, Doug, we often hear about an October surprise. Right now, this is sort of a September surprise. Is this likely to have a huge impact come November 6th?

BRINKLEY: Well, you know, Wolf, imagine if Barack Obama had not gotten Osama bin Laden and Gadhafi. The killing of those two terrorists gives him a kind of foreign policy credential. But it's fair I think right now to say, is Obama's Egyptian policy working? Egypt is a great friend. Anwar Sadat has been our great friend.

And I think there's an opening for -- for debate over what's going on in the Middle East. But as CNN is reporting so well, this is an ongoing story. We don't know what is going to be happening tomorrow. Maybe foreign policy will hijack jobs or at least become more important in the coming weeks. There are many -- it is a scary situation, not just in Libya and Egypt, but in places like Yemen right now.

BLITZER: As Jimmy Carter learned back in the 1980 race against Ronald Reagan -- he was an incumbent president, Gloria. You well remember the escalating violence in Iran and elsewhere eventually hurt him badly.

BORGER: Of course. And that's a real problem. I think right now, Wolf, also there is a real legislative issue on the table, which is that we have negotiated a billion dollar loan forgiveness for Egypt. And Congress could decide to veto that at some point. That could become an escalating issue for the president.

BLITZER: Gloria, thanks very much. Doug Brinkley, thanks to you as well.

Up next, the fallout from the anti-Islam movie. Questions of freedom of speech and what it means around the world.


BLITZER: There are new questions tonight about the film that triggered the outrage in the Arab world and the controversial decision to censor it and take it down from Youtube. With us now, Rick Grenell, former Romney campaign foreign policy adviser, Ben Smith -- he's editor in chief of Buzzfeed -- and Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor and author of the book "Public Parts."

Guys, thanks very much. Jeff, let me start with you. The censorship issue is obviously an important issue. Here is a statement that was put out -- and I'll put it up on the screen -- from Youtube. "We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video, which is widely available on the web, is clearly within our guidelines, and so will stay on Youtube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt, we have temporarily restricted access in both countries. Our hearts are with the families of the people murdered in Tuesday's attack in Libya."

Jeff, what do you think about this?

JEFF JARVIS, JOURNALISM PROFESSOR, CUNY: I understand Google's position and I understand why they did this, but they set themselves a terrible precedent, because we can not live in a society where anything that could offend anyone has to be taken down. And Google cannot put itself in a position to cleanse the society for our protection.

So I think that -- again, it's understandable given what's happened there. But the basic truth here, Wolf, is that this video is cheesy, horrible, stupid, product of trolls. It was then, in turn, exploited by murderous trolls who wanted to do this. We have to get in the position where we just stop paying attention to this to this junk.

BLITZER: Yes, it is junk. It's stupid. It's ridiculous. We won't show it here on CNN. Jeff, what do you think about that decision?

JARVIS: I think you should go ahead and show it or at least link to it on Youtube, because it is so patently ridiculous. But again, the truth was it was made -- we on the Internet have learned that you don't feed the trolls. Trolls are people who come on who intend to cause difficulty, to get a rise out of you.

So this video was made to get a rise out of people in the Middle East. People in the Middle East were frankly looking for an excuse to do the same. It's all a bunch of idiocy. Now we in media then become dupes of that entire process. The more attention we give it, which we are right now, which television stations in Egypt did, the more we are feeding this process of the trolls and the trolls.

Now there are those in the world who think that you should control speech. We in America don't believe that. We believe in free speech, which includes good speech and noxious speech. So I don't want to see ourselves in a position where we think that speech should be controlled just because there are fools and bozos out there.

BLITZER: Ben, a U.S. ambassador is dead, Navy SEALS murdered. Did Mitt Romney make a big mistake when he called out the president over that Cairo embassy initial statement?

BEN SMITH, BUZZFEED: I am not sure he made a huge mistake, but I think a lot of the folks who work in this -- who work in that field, in both parties -- I'm pretty sure Rick is an exception to this -- thought it was a mistake to go out and make a statement before the facts were clear. He made a statement condemning this Tweet from the Cairo embassy that the administration then said was a mistake and that was then deleted, and referring to the death of a consular official when I -- he didn't realize that the -- we didn't know that the ambassador had been killed. I think people were surprised that he jumped out like that.

BLITZER: What do you think, Rick? You think it was necessarily a mistake, right?

RICK GRENELL, FMR. ROMNEY CAMPAIGN FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER: Ben just called it jumping out. I think we got to look at the facts. The simple fact is that the Cairo embassy issued a statement that was not approved by Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton looked at the statement actually and said, no, this is a weak statement. This should not go out. It went out anyway. Fifteen hours later -- 15 hours later, Mitt Romney decides this violence is escalating. It is getting out of hand. He says something. The president of the United States, President Obama, doesn't say anything for 15 hours. When he does say something, his first words are to chastise Mitt Romney. I don't think you should be characterizing this as jumping out in front.


SMITH: I think it is sort of odd that you are blaming -- you're saying that this statement from the Cairo embassy was the fault of the president of the United States but not the fault of the secretary of state. I understand there is this thing of positioning Hillary Clinton against Obama, which may at well at times be true.

GRENELL: That's not what I am saying. First of all, if you are the president of the United States, you have to own up to the fact of escalating and developing violence. For 15 hours, nothing is being said. I think that we are missing one point here. When the White House is silent, that's a weak message. Silence and a lack of a message is really a problem. I think that's what Mitt Romney was saying, 15 hours later.


GRENELL: Some people may think that Mitt Romney jumped out after 15 hours. I actually think that we should have an American president who absolutely sees developing problems and says, I am going to enter the situation and try to calm it down. I don't think it is too much, Wolf, to say that if the president of the United States --


JARVIS: Rick, how would he calm it down?

GRENELL: You use the bully pulpit. I think just by asking that question, you realize -- there is a sense in that question that the American presidency doesn't have power or the White House doesn't have power.

JARVIS: I just said that I think we should be paying less attention to these kind of behaviors and activities. At the same time, you are saying that the president's silence increased the violence. What is the president going to come out? Say don't make people angry, which is what the embassy said anyway. I don't understand what you are suggesting he should have done.

GRENELL: Let me be clear. First of all, I agree with you that some stupid movie should not be an issue. If you look at what al Jazeera is saying in the region, they are saying that this movie had nothing to do with this violence. But I think to answer your question, the president of the United States can immediately come out and call upon the Egyptian government to calm the situation down, call on the protesters to remember a variety of different points.

I think you find a way to utilize the bully pulpit faster than 15 hours later.


BLITZER: Ben, we're going to take a break. But go ahead and respond to that. Then we'll take a quick break.

SMITH: If only Rick were still Romney's spokesman. I think what Rick said just now made a lot of since. It isn't exactly what Romney said.

BLITZER: Stand by, guys. Hold on for one moment. We are going to continue this conversation.

The candidates are neck in neck in several swing states. When we come back, we will talk about whether or not what has happened in the last 48 hours will change any of that. Stay with us.


BLITZER: I'm back with now Rick Grenell, Jeff Jarvis and Ben Smith. Ben, are the Republicans having an impact in suggesting -- accusing the president of having a weak foreign policy?

SMITH: Yeah, I think that's certainly the fact that there -- there are riots around U.S. embassies in four countries, including in ones where Barack Obama reluctantly or very jubilantly supported the revolution, is a real foreign policy debate Republicans are trying to have. I think, to some extent, where they are leaning is who lost Egypt, who lost Libya. And I think the problem with the Republican argument is it is only going to go so far.

Nobody in either party is going to advocate for any kind of American intervention in any of these countries, because that's so unpopular right now.

BLITZER: Rick, if you look at the polls, especially since both of the conventions, especially the Democratic convention, there is clearly a bounce for Obama. Look at these polls that NBC News and "Wall Street Journal," the Marist poll, came out today with in three critical battleground states. In Ohio right now, Obama 50 percent, Romney 43 percent. Look at this, in Virginia, 49 percent for Obama, 44 percent for Romney. That's Florida. But it's the same in Virginia, 49 to 44.

You got three battleground states. Romney needs these three states if he's going to be elected. How worried are you right now that he's just not doing well?

GRENELL: Well, I think if you believe the polls, you would be worried. And certainly I think we have work to do. We've got a long way to go. But I think the lesson here, if you get the policy right, the politics will follow.

Let me give you an example. When Barack Obama decided that we were going to go in and help the French and NATO to do something about Libya, the saying goes, if you break it, you own it. And I was talking to some folks today inside the State Department. And they told me that the security firm -- it's called Academy. It's the formally known firm of blackwater.

Academy was actually set to go in and provide security for the ambassador in Libya. They have been waiting. They've done some preliminary evaluations. But for two months, they have been waiting while the State Department decides to get the paperwork right. So we really got to look I think at the security situation in Libya, what's going on in Egypt, what has the Obama administration been doing to get the policy right. Because once you get the policy right, I think the politics will follow.

BLITZER: Let me bring Jeff in. Jeff, what grade would you give what we call the mainstream media on the way we've handled the past 48 hours or so, this crisis that's exploding in Egypt, in Libya, Yemen now, maybe other countries?

JARVIS: I think we've just proven that we cannot resist getting back to the horse race, eh? That's where we end up. I think that there's been a lot of rushing to try to figure out what's really going on here with the video. But I come back to this idea that what we're seeing is, and Hillary Clinton said it, a small and savage bunch causing this in countries. And I think that John McCain has perhaps sounded the most presidential of anybody in the last 48 hours, talking about not abandoning the Arab Spring, not taking this moment as if it's a loss for a very long and very difficult fight for democracy.

BLITZER: As you know, Ben, a lot of Americans, especially increasing numbers of members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, they would just assume have the U.S. walk away, give up the foreign aid, and just deal with the problems here at home. That's an issue out there.

SMITH: Absolutely. I think President Obama, when he said today that Egypt -- he said it in an offhand way, that Egypt isn't an ally, made it a lot harder to sell a billion dollars a year in aid to that country, which is really a key lever we have in whatever influence we've got.

BLITZER: And Egypt happens to be a major non-NATO ally of the United States. Rick, if Romney would have said that, would there have been a lot more criticism, shall we say, for screwing up an answer?

GRENELL: Of course. You and I both know that. It is what it is. We have to deal with that. But once again, I think you have Hillary Clinton's spokeswoman, representing Hillary Clinton, coming to save the day, where Victoria Nuland today came out and said, no, Mr. President, Egypt is our ally, and had to correct the president.

So I think we do have a White House that is very new, does not have a strategy. and we're seeing the effects of that in the Middle East right now.

BLITZER: Rick Grenell, Ben Smith, Jeff Jarvis, guys, thanks very much for joining us. Coming up, the very latest on another day of violence in the Middle East. There are now fresh protests under way in Cairo. We'll have all of the details. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Police and protesters in Cairo; a very dangerous, intense scene in Cairo. It's playing out day after day. Right now, it appears the crisis is growing worse. The violence that began Tuesday with the killing of the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi spreading from Libya and Egypt to Iran, Iraq, Gaza, Yemen and Morocco.

President Obama is warning that no act of terror against America will go unpunished. Stay with CNN for all the latest developments in this unfolding and very dramatic situation.

That's all for us tonight. Because of all of the breaking news in the Middle East, the special program with Tony Robins that was supposed to air this evening will be seen this Sunday. Tony is sitting down with three billionaire Americans, Mark Cuban, Steve Wynn and T. Boone Pickens. And they are all talking about Keeping America Great.

That's Sunday night. "AC 360" starts right now.