The September 11 assassination of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, and the assault on Washington’s embassy in Cairo was a complete surprise to the White House. Immediately thereafter, violent demonstrations in other Middle Eastern countries quickly resulted in the deployment of Marine anti-terrorism security units, and the drawdown of non-essential personnel from U.S. embassies in Tunisia and the Sudan.
Undoubtedly, the violence will ebb and flow, as it did throughout the region in 1979, culminating in the seizure of our Tehran embassy, where the Iranian ayatollahs held Americans hostage for 444 days. Important questions about why the United States did not see the terrorism of this second September 11 coming, and what to do in response, should prompt a wide-ranging political debate in the weeks before the November 6 presidential election.
But there is a much more fundamental question: what caused the violent outbursts in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere? The Obama administration, following the pattern that Jeane Kirkpatrick once called “blame America first,” ascribed it all to an obscure movie ridiculing the prophet Muhammad. Much like the 2006 controversy over cartoons of Muhammad appearing in Danish newspapers, prompting riots and murder threats, top Obama officials argued that the satiric film triggered the deadly response.
White House press spokesman Jay Carney said expressly: “This is not a case of protests directed at the United States at large or at U.S. policy, but in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.” Others blithely repeated this line, stoking the media attack not on the terrorists who killed an American Ambassador and three colleagues, but on Mitt Romney for suggesting that appeasing mobs never works.
Obviously, if we misunderstand the cause-and-effect foundations of the September 11 violence, our response will be ineffective or even harmful long-term. We can be certain of one thing: the film, however vile, was merely a pretext for the violence—an excuse, not a reason. As today’s controversy and the 2006 Danish cartoons demonstrate, almost anything can be used as a propaganda tool. But if the West reacts simply to the propaganda rather than to the fundamental problem, we will never adequately defend ourselves.
For some time, the Middle East has been experiencing a rising tide of radical Islam, fanatical and unreasoning in many manifestations, accompanied by an extremist political agenda. This radical Islamicism is replacing the receding wave of Arab nationalism which enveloped the region at the end of the colonial era half a century ago. The nationalism tide, embodied by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, was secular, socialist and decidedly anti-American and anti-West. The new wave of radical Islamicism is obviously grounded in extremist religion rather than secular ideology, but it is just as virulently anti-American and anti-West.
These fanatical religious and political views are clearly the logical foundations for hatred of all free and open societies which do not adhere to their central tenets. Moreover, the religious radicals cleverly partner with other sources of anti-Americanism to advance their objectives. Accordingly, focusing on an offensive movie as the cause of the assassinations and riots merely highlights a symbol of what the radicals hate about us, not the underlying ideology itself.
Blithely trying to appease the extremists by knee-jerk reactions to this or that pretext will always fail to sate their anger, and convince them that a weak, decadent West can be intimidated even further. This was the U.S. Cairo Embassy’s central error in apologizing about a film for which neither Washington nor the American people had any responsibility. And although the White House repudiated the embarrassing embassy statement, Administration officials like Secretary of State Clinton have continued to apologize, as though the film is the real issue, a view 180 degrees opposite to reality.
It is never in America’s interest to constrain domestic freedoms to appease foreign enemies. As Justice Brennan once wrote, “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and … it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
President Obama’s highest priority, namely his re-election, is obviously foremost in his calculations. His “success” in Libya, overthrowing Gadhafi without U.S. casualties, now lies in tragic ruins in Benghazi. His narrative that the global war on terror is essentially over is revealed as a sham. And his claim that he could reverse decades of anti-American feelings through “outreach,” concessions and apologies, is shattered irretrievably.
America’s Middle East policy, and its foreign policy globally, needs a far stronger and more determined defense of its interests and values than Obama has provided or is capable of providing. In particular, we must be absolutely clear that the recent violence is caused not by the freedoms Americans cherish, but by the repression and hatred brought forth by extremist religious ideologies. American liberty is their problem, not ours.
This post first appeared in Human Events.