This is the first post dealing with Tuesday’s murderous attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, in which 4 American diplomats, including the US ambassador to Libya, and the storming of the US embassy compound in Cairo. At some point I’l put together a post about what the reaction to the film that allegedly started the latest round of unrest says about the Arab world, but for now I want to talk about what the attack on the US Embassy in Cairo. Although the attack on the Benghazi consulate was the bloodier of the two assaults, the assault on the embassy in Cairo tells us more about the failure of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
First, consider the American reaction. After an unruly mob of Egyptians stormed the consulate and burned the American flag, and Islamic fundamentalists in Libya kill the US ambassador, what was the American response? Secretary of State Hilary Clinton released a statement that there was “never any justification for violence of this kind”. But crucially, she prefaced it by saying that the US “deplores intentional efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others”, referring to “The Innocence of the Muslims”, the film which purportedly instigated the assaults (in point of fact, we now know that the protest in Egypt and the assault on the consulate in Benghazi were organized well in advance of the release of the movie, making Clinton’s comment that much sillier). Shortly afterwards, President Obama made a similar statement.
Think about the perception of those statements for a second. Islamic fundamentalists, waiving the Al Qaeda flag, on September 11 no less, violate the holiest of holies of international diplomacy and attack American embassies and consulates and the American response is “sorry we offended you”. That’s pathetic. As Paul Wells noted, no other western leader felt inclined to apologize for “The Innocence of the Muslims” in their condemnations of Tuesday’s attacks (why should they?). Indeed, in Canada, all three major political parties, including the normally painfully politically correct, and anti-US, NDP, were unequivocal in their condemnation of the attacks on the US. When the President of the US is more weak-kneed in the face of Islamic terror than the NDP, the US has a problem.
Michael Young, writing The Daily Star, nails the problem. The US government wants to be liked. But the Arab world doesn’t want to like the US, and if it can’t find a good reason to hate the US, it’ll make one up:
“[W]e must seriously consider that the Arab world has so internalized its disapproval of the United States over time, integrating it perfectly into a prevailing sense of Arab misfortune and frustration, that anti-Americanism has become a constant of Arab political discourse, a crutch of sorts.”
In that case, the Obama administration’s mewing apology for “The Innocence of the Muslims” is unlikely to alleviate Arab hatred of the US.
On the other hand, Young goes on to say, “[b]eing loved is not nearly as important as being respected.” And that’s the key. The US has success in advancing its Mid-East policy when it’s respected, whether it’s liked or not (think about it, the most successful period in US Mid-East policy was in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War)). Young attributes the loss of respect in the region to the lack of consistent long-term US policy towards the Middle-East, as a result of partisan bickering between successive administrations. While that’s likely part of the story, it only goes so far. A bigger part is the US unwillingness to demand that its purported “friends” and “allies” in the region help protect its interests. while bending over backwards (often to its own detriment) to protect theirs. The US embassy in Cairo is attacked, and rather than publicly demanding answers from the Egyptian government, the US President apologizes. No wonder the Arabs hold the US in contempt.
Indeed, the contempt for the US is evidenced by the actions of the Egyptian government around the attack on the US embassy in Cairo. Here is a country whose economy and security is heavily dependent on US aid. One might think that the first public response to an attack on the US embassy by the citizens of such a country might be abject public apologies, followed by assurances that the perpetrators will be brought to justice and that it will never happen again (for example, take the reaction of the Libyan government, who promptly aplogized and started rounding up suspects). Yet the principal Egyptian response to the attack on the US embassy was call for President Obama to prosecute the producers of “The Innocence of the Muslims” – a demand that’s all the more outrageous given that clips from that film have been broadcast around the clock for the past week on Islamist TV stations in Egypt (seemingly, it’s ok to broadcast excerpts from that film, so long as its used by Islamic fundamentalist to stir up anti-US hatred). Worse, following that attack, the Muslim Brotherhood, from whose political arm much of the Egyptian government (including the President) is drawn, proceeded to go out and organize another protest against the American embassy. (This sparked a darkly humorous twitter exchange today, as the US embassy, observing the Brotherhoods proclivity to condemn the attacks on the embassy in English, while encouraging anti-US protests in Arabic, pointedly tweeted “We read Arabic too”). Moreover, the fact that Egyptian security forces were unable (or unwilling) to stop people from storming the embassy is suspicious – the protests, after all, had been announced weeks ago by known Islamic terrorist. It beggars belief that the Egyptian government was surprised by the protests, which leads to the worrying suspicion that they encouraged, or at least allowed it to happen.
What does that say about the low regard for the US in the region. It pours billions of dollars into Egypt (and supported the Arab spring revolution which brought the current government to power – it could just as easily backed the odious Mubarak regime) and for its trouble, its friendship is repaid with contempt. Egyptians attack the US, quite possibly with the connivance, or at least tacit consent of the Egyptian government, and the Egyptian government’s response is to make demands against the US and to continue to stir-up anti-US sentiment. Any self-respecting country would tell the Egyptian government to sod a camel, not apologize. And Egypt isn’t alone. Saudi Arabia is another country whose economy and security is wholly dependent on US military support, yet for years it poured billions of dollars funding Islamic extremism around the world. The Arab world treats the US with contempt and the US just laps it up. Well, no wonder the US can’t advance its interests in the Middle-East.
Moreover, the lack of respect for the US is directly linked to the attack on the US embassy in Cairo. You’d never see a mob of Egyptians attack the Russian or Chinese consulates. Not because those countries are more pro-Islam than the US (quite the contrary), but because the Egyptian government would never let protestors get close to storming their embassy. Quite the contrary, Tahrir square would run red with blood before an angry mob was allowed to attack those embassies because the likely result of such an attack would be that the Egyptian ambassador to Russia or China, as the case may be, would be shipped home – in boxes. But when it comes to the US, hey, no worries, it’ll put up with Arab crap. And why should the Arab respect the US, when militants attack the US embassy, it apologizes. (Indeed, at least one commentor has made the comparison between Obama’s response to the embassy and consulate attacks and Jimmy Carter’s response to the storming of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. For Barack Obama, the comparison with Jimmy Carter could be the kiss of death for his presidency)
This isn’t to suggest that the US should start chopping up Arab ambassadors and fedex-ing them home. But the US is (despite recent difficulties) far and away the world’s largest military and economic power. The Arabs need it a lot more than it needs them. If it wants to protect its interests in the Middle East, the US needs to remind the Arab world of that reality. The proper response to the attack on the US embassy in Cairo was “This attack is intolerable. The Egyptian government has failed in its duty to protect our embassy from criminals in its midst. We’re suspending all foreign aid until the perpetrators of this outrage are brought to justice. If it happens again, they’ll be hell to pay”. The Arab world may not love the US, but unless the US is keen on burying more of its diplomats, it had better make sure that the Arab world starts to respects it again.