September 17, 2012
“The relationship between Islam and the west includes centuries of co-existence and co-operation, but also conflict… More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims…”
– Barack Obama, Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009.
A man I know died last Tuesday at the hands of vicious terrorists. He and his three colleagues were killed by men without moral scruple, who were using the cover of a mob stirred up by unreasoning religious hatred. As tragic and reprehensible as their deaths were, they are not without meaning: no, they tell us much about our world – and our leaders.
I met Ambassador Christopher Stevens twice. I remember him much as others do: an accomplished Arabist with an appreciation of the Middle East and its people, a deep understanding of the labyrinth that is Libya and a powerful desire to serve his country by using his skills to bring about better relations between the United States and the emerging government there. His death is a profound loss for both countries, and an illustration of the great irony surrounding assaults on diplomats: most often, they kill or injure the host country’s most knowlegeable and energetic advocates.
Why did this attack – and the assaults in Cairo, Yemen, Khartoum, Tunis and elsewhere – occur? One clue is the date: the current wave of violence began on Sept. 11. Another might be the chant of the crowd coming over the embassy wall in both Tunis and Cairo: “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama…” Using the death of bin Ladin as a prop in domestic politics might seem like a winner, but there is a downside: it’s all very well to do one’s end zone dance and spike the ball, but even the vice president should have the wit to realize that martyrs do their best work after they’re dead.
There are also triggers in what this President has said and done. Beginning with his “Cairo speech,” an excerpt from which begins this column, Barack Obama has subtly but assiduously stoked the fires of grievance and doubt in the Middle East. In America’s psychobabble society, “frank acknowledgement” and apology is necessary for “healing” to begin; we regard it as “manly.” Elsewhere in the world this is seen as a sign of weakness and an invitation for the jackals to begin circling. Not understanding this difference is dangerous in a chief executive.
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He has also abruptly abandoned longstanding associates: think of Secretary Clinton’s frantic tacking on support for Egyptian President Mubarak, or the current equivocation over Israel. We have shied away from energetic involvement in the human catastrophe that is Syria, and have engaged in years of bootless hand-wringing over Iran’s nuclear program, which worries Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt at least as much as it does Israel. But we had no qualms about undertaking a “hidden hand” attack on Libya – where the possibility of losses was far less. This is the behavior of a playground bully, not a leader among nations.
Which makes the attack on Mitt Romney over his remarks following the assassination of four American diplomats and the assault on our embassy in Cairo not only remarkable, but foolish. Yes, Mr. Romney’s remarks were ill-timed. But when he said the embassy should not have tweeted that “We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” as the rioters were coming over the wall, was he wrong? And how was that different from the Department of State’s frantic efforts to back away from the statement, including deleting the tweets from the Embassy’s Twitter feed? True, the Secretary of State doubled down on Sept. 13, calling the anti-Muslim film in question “reprehensible” and saying she knew that some people couldn’t understand why the government wouldn’t just make it go away. Alas, she missed the opportunity for an object lesson on our First Amendment – but it’s hard to move forward when you’re backpedaling.
Then there’s “shoot first and aim later.” First prize for this goes to the president. Perhaps he missed the briefing, but one generally does not announce that a country is no longer our ally in a television interview, without at least giving its leaders a heads-up. In the case of Egypt, designated a “non-NATO ally” by Congress in 1989, one might also want to give the State Department advance notice – it keeps the embarrassment of public befuddlement nd contradiction within the Administration to a minimum.
All of which floundering would have been quite comical, had it not been for the tragic deaths of Christopher Stevens and his colleagues: they died in service to a foreign policy of drift, misstatement and apology. They deserved – and we deserve – better.
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.