Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Benghazi

It seems the hordes of Muslim extremists are at it again. This time they have supposedly responded to an inconspicuous movie, which mocked the prophet Mohammed, by violently protesting outside of U.S. embassies and murdering the U.S. ambassador to Libya. However, as recent reports indicate, the film was not the real cause of the violence. Instead, the attacks were a well-planned terrorist plot, aimed at humiliating the United States on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, responding to the killing of terrorist leaders by U.S. drone attacks, and securing key documents from within the Benghazi embassy.

The violence has sparked a domestic row between the two U.S. presidential candidates. Governor Romney was criticized the administration's response, which initially apologized for the film for offending Muslim sensibilities. He said "It's 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." This was in response to the first statement from the U.S. government which stated that:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
The administration subsequently and sharply criticized the violence. In Secretary of State Clinton's words: "I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today."

Nevertheless, judging by recent reports, it is apparent that the administration focused on the wrong aspect at the outset, validating Romney's criticisms. By portraying the event as an overly violent response to an offensive video, rather than a planned terrorist attack, the administration's goal was (wrongly) to assuage anger, not thwart enemies of the United States.

While there is an argument to be made about using carefully worded platitudes to calm a potential diplomatic debacle (success in international relations often comes to those who can artfully use words to avoid using action), there are proper and improper ways to wield diplomatic finesse. The Obama administration's initial response made a number of crucial mistakes that, in combination with past errors, display a profound and naive understanding of the Middle East and public diplomacy, shed insight into the president's misguided worldview, and lay a framework for further attacks on U.S. interests and personnel.

The administration's first error is that they seemingly believe that this sort of Muslim violence is a direct response to a Western provocation. Whether it is the recent film, cartoons printed by a Dutch newspaper, or  a Florida pastor burning copies of the Qu'ran, the administration presupposes that the response in the Middle East is understandable, even if its inexcusable (to be fair, the administration repeatedly and publicly condemns the violence as unjustifiable). The logic stems from a belief that if foolish Americans would just avoid such hateful acts, the Arabs now rioting in the streets would have little reason to resort to violence or detest America.

But as the unfolding story indicates, this logic is far from true. There are much deeper animosities, angers, and conflicting worldviews at work in the Middle East. The American condemnation of the film, alongside verbal, diplomatic, and coercive action against the perpetrators of the violence, did nothing to assuage Muslim angst. In fact, riots and protests broke out in Muslim capitals across the globe, directing Islamic wrath at U.S. embassies in a number of countries. Protests were even staged outside the Swiss embassy in Iran (the Swiss represent U.S. interests there) and in Israel. Jews and the "Zionist-American conspiracy" became instant rhetorical targets and some Arabs celebrated the September 11th attacks.

What is truly at work in the Middle East is an intricate and complex set of ideologies and emotionsa respect for and jealousy of the successes of the West combined with a distaste, even hatred, of Western values. These are often coupled with domestic woesfrustration with economic conditions and poor leadership. Finally and most significantly, there is the role of the jihadists, who exploited the film to further their goal of armed jihad against the West. Anti-Islamic films or cartoons are at most a trigger that set these forces in motion.

Obama's advisers presumably understand the complexities of the Middle East, which is why the president's responses are so befuddling. Apologies will not address the real tension between Islam and the West. Nor will they solve the domestic woes in the Middle East or dissuade fundamentalist terrorists. If anything apologies reinforce, to those Muslims who are so imbibed in societies where dictators can control such expression, the image of a malignant West. For those Muslims who understand that the U.S. government has little control, and thus little responsibility, for such publications (however offensive), apologies are simply condescending.

So then why apologize? It seems that the only reasonable explanation lies in Obama's faulty worldview. As has been argued before, Obama sees the world through a lens that can be aptly described as the "problem of the underdog." In a trend that dominates both his domestic and foreign policies, Obama places an emphasis on castigating those in power and bolstering the supposedly weak. The successful, the powerful, the rich, the former imperialist, the banker, Wall Street, the business owner or anyone else "on top" got there by pushing someone else down. All, by the virtue of their position, have a moral inferiority to those who occupy the concomitant underdog position.

As a representative of the most powerful nation, Obama thus has a responsibility to apologize for our supposed sins. His immediate reaction was to address the slight that allegedly sent the Arab street into an angst-ridden, violent frenzy. The gut reaction of the administration was to publicly atone, in the naive belief that self-castigation would dissipate the violence.

But such a worldview is naive. It, as the administration is now admitting, has failed to address the realities of the situation. It treated a terrorist attack like a PR matter, solidifying in many's minds, both in the West and throughout the Muslim world, that it was cruel and provocative Americans who's blasphemy against the prophet instigated the violence.

This weakens the United States' global stature. It gives credence to the argument that the United States is the crux of the world's problems. It creates and reinforces a false linkage between the individual acts of American citizens and the positions, influence and control of the U.S. government. But most importantly, it fails to address the real issues at workthe political, social, and economic plight of the Middle East, the ideological incompatibilities between political Islam and liberal democracy, and a passionate fundamentalist force that wants to overturn the West's dominance.

While the Romney camp has certainly oversimplified the issue in order to score political points, the administration clearly mishandled the situation at the outset. It is certainly courageous and noble to apologize when our country does something wrongsuch is an act of diplomacy that is unfortunately underusedyet it is quite another to apologize for or even condemn the acts of one's own citizens, particularly when the government has little control over their behaviors.

The administration would do better to hold a posture that does not apologize for who we are as a nation nor fail to defend the values and principles that have made this country great. Instead the president should use the opportunities to not only condemn the violence against Americans but to educate the Muslim world, in its inchoate struggle for democracy, that the principles of America, such freedom of speech and expression, have tremendous value, even if they do come with costs.