The recent attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Egypt and Libya, which resulted in the death of the American Ambassador to Libya and several staff members is important on two levels. Coming in the final days of the presidential campaign, it is inevitably a political issue. It is that properly because on a broader level these events reflect the diminished standing and influence of the United States in the Middle East within the context of the so called “Arab Spring”, and the on-going tension and potential crisis between Israel and Iran over Iran's long term program to develop nuclear weapons capability.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a moderate Republican from South Carolina has described it accurately as an ongoing lack of political leadership by the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, because these latest events have occurred during the heat of the current presidential election cycle, the Obama campaign is attempting to diminish the resulting criticism over these latest events as “inappropriate 'political' commentary. But the current incidents are not isolated events and far from “inappropriate” subjects for discussion. They are part of a continuum of similar events and they occur within the larger context of America's relationships with the entire Middle Eastern and South Asian regions, as well as our strategic relationships with Russia and China, whose policies in these areas are in conflict with ours and our major allies in Europe.
It is a given that the Bush Administration's policies with respect to the invasion of Afghanistan, although justifiable and necessary in the face of the attacks of “9/11”, and the less justifiable invasion and occupation of Iraq, were taken as hostile acts against Islamic cultures by many in the region instead of part of a broader geopolitical strategy. Upon his election, Obama was anxious to disassociate himself from these policies and to change regional perceptions of the U.S. But he was both naively idealistic and inconsistent in his efforts. His Cairo speech in June, 2009, projected a platitude filled and unnecessarily apologetic foreign policy orientation instead of just announcing a change in the pursuit of U.S. interests within a context of cooperation with regional governments. This, while pursuing the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan without firm commitments to clearly defined goals.
Thus, what amounted to a simplistic public relations effort failed with respect to relations with existing regional governments and inevitably to their “Arab Spring” successors and the popular movements which brought them about. The apparent decline of U.S. resolve and strength in the region had begun.
Just prior to these latest attacks the usual, and unfortunate, response to the obvious tension was made first by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which condemned the alleged excuse for it which was “reports” of a U-Tube video supported by idiotic Florida preacher Terry Jones, which criticized Islam and its founder and “prophet”, Muhammad. This equally idiotic statement by the embassy which was supported by embassy Twitter posts after the violence commenced, assigned moral equivalence between mob violence and the exercise of the principle of free speech, however irresponsible. The statement released early Tuesday by the staff of the Cairo embassy condemned the film and the "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to 'hurt the religious feelings of Muslims' – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions." ”. While the Obama Administration later felt compelled to back away from this statement by the weak assertion that "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government", the damage was done. The U.S. government could be intimidated by the threat of mob action.
Underlying the Obama Administration's position regarding violence against Western interests is the common place assertion that the violent acts are perpetrated by a small minority of extremists. This is both a politically correct” distortion of the truth and a futile attempt to separate the wide spread Islamic hostility and intolerance and common place resort to violence which is part of the Middle Eastern culture, from whatever political authorities are in place at the time. But it is both unnecessary and fails to withstand recent historical reality.
Consider the response of citizens of Arab nations, who were seen dancing in the streets after the attacks of “9/11”. The 2005/2007multi-national violence and murders of non-Muslims in response to the publication by a small Danish newspaper of a cartoon depicting Muhammad; the attack on UN headquarters in Afghanistan which resulted in the death of seven UN workers, stimulated by the simple threat by the same Florida preacher to publicly burn a Koran and then who did just that in March, 2011; the protests and murder of U.S. soldiers after the disclosure of the mistaken burning of excess inventories of copies of the Koran, inexplicably held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
These events and the video of the current incidents in Cairo and in Benghazi, Libya make it abundantly clear that they are not the work of a tiny minority of extremists. The videos show thousands of ordinary young men who may indeed have been encouraged by organized Muslim extremists but who responded enthusiastically with deadly consequences. It is preposterous, however to believe that thousands of citizens of Egypt, Libya and now Yemen where the American embassy was attacked, were so incensed by a short and obscure anti-Islam internet video which few had even seen, that they would attack U.S. embassies. The truth being revealed is that large Islamist groups with similar anti-West agendas found a willing citizenry to carry out these attacks on the eleventh anniversary of the “9/11” destruction of the World Trade Center and the new governments in place were either unable or unwilling to take prompt and forceful action to intercede. The Pew Global Attitudes Project reveals that positive opinions of the U.S. and President Obama are at the 15% and 25% levels across the Muslim countries (June, 2012).
Contrary to President Obama's beliefs, it is not necessary that Islamic populations “like” the U.S. Indeed, given that the cultural conflict with the U.S. and the West is about their rejection of Western concepts of individual freedom in favor of intolerant religious orthodoxy, this represents a naive and hopeless goal. The situation demands presidential leadership and requires that the mutual interests of the new governments in the Arab states as well as Pakistan and the U.S. be explained clearly and be made contingent on the willingness of those governments to contain open hostilities and violence against American officials and private citizens and cooperate in pursuit of those interests. Obama's rush to promise financial aid to Libya and Egypt even before the nature of their new governments was known gave up all leverage in formulating a new relationship with these authorities. He further diminished U.S. influence with respect to the newly installed Islamist government in Egypt by announcing the forgiveness of one billions dollars in debt to the U.S. government. He seems frozen in time while the Syrian government murders its citizens and causes regional instability by massive emigration of Syrians trying to escape the chaos. He refuses to take the assertive diplomatic action demanded by the Israeli government with respect to time limits and positive steps in negotiations with Iran in order to avoid a preemptive Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. The critical relationship with Pakistan languishes without direction. The war in Afghanistan goes on in the face of hostilities with the Afghan security forces whose training is the rationale for its continuance.
Protests against American diplomatic interests are spreading to other Arab countries and further protests are planned in Egypt. No president can prevent protests in foreign nations but the failure of foreign governments to protect diplomatic facilities and personnel is unacceptable and reflects a basic lack of respect and influence towards the U.S. as an important participant in regional security and economic stability which these governments should be explaining to their people. Common sense, an understanding of real world political dynamics and a rejection of futile attempts to change the nature of foreign cultures as a basis for foreign policy is critical and has so far been beyond the reach of this Administration. Platitudes about friendship and “the greatness” of foreign cultures , while ignoring the scope of real hostility, promises of no strings attached financial aid and simple diplomatic “condemnation” of violence against American officials and interests after the fact are not enough.