Last week, Muslim mobs took to the streets to murder the American ambassador in Libya and three of his staffers. American embassies were attacked from Egypt to Yemen.
Embarrassed White House press secretary Jay Carney and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice insisted that these assaults were just reactions to an insensitive video that disparaged Islam and was circulating on the Internet. As embassies burned, we were assured that there was no animosity directed at America in general, or at this administration and its foreign policy in particular.
That is hogwash. The weeks-old video was a mere pretext, in the manner of the Danish cartoons that Islamists used to stir up mobs in their war against the West. The street rioting was long ago synchronized across the Middle East to celebrate the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Apparently, the administration was left stunned and without a clue about the latest Middle East madness.
President Obama chose not to support nearly a million Iranian dissidents in 2009. Two years later, he belatedly offered encouragement to the revolutionaries who overthrew Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Yet those snubbed in Iran were far more likely to oppose radical Islam than were the protesters who later put the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Cairo.
Who, exactly, were we “leading from behind” in Libya? Moammar Qaddafi was a monster, but also one in a sort of rehab who was seeking better relations with the West.
As for Syria, the Obama administration had called dictator Bashar Assad a reformer. Then he became a mass murderer who had to step down. Then we called in Kofi Annan and the U.N. to practice soft-power diplomacy. Then we threatened to intervene. Now we have backed off.
As a candidate and as president, Obama assumed that his own multicultural politics, his familiarity with Islam, his novel transracial personal story, and his repudiation of George W. Bush would all combine to win over the Middle East. Supposedly, Middle Eastern dislike of America had little to do with longstanding existential differences that did not start with Bush and won’t end with Obama.
Obama’s al Arabiya interview, Cairo speech, and loud reset diplomacy sent mixed messages. He gave the impression that Middle East anger was largely either America’s fault or due to misunderstandings that the sensitive Obama alone could mitigate — as he distanced himself from the supposed pathologies of prior American policy in the region.
That myth-making is now discredited. But it still makes it hard for the administration to admit that hatred in Egypt is deep-seated and irrational — and has very little to do with a silly video. Those in the Arab street hate the West and America because they are told daily that our supposed godlessness and decadence should not make us so rich and powerful — especially when such pious believers as themselves are so poor and impotent.
But rather than addressing the real causes of their present misery — tribalism, misogyny, statism, corruption, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, and religious intolerance — amid rich natural resources, Islamists scapegoat. Sometimes they fume at American support for Israel, at other times at an obscure video, cartoon, or rumor of a torched Koran.
We only feed these adolescent tantrums when America wrongly apologizes for the occasional insensitivity of a few of our citizens, who enjoy free speech under the U.S. Constitution.
America looks even weaker when this administration sends confusing signals about U.S. power. The Obama administration too often spikes the ball — whether it is Joe Biden bragging about killing Osama bin Laden, the president joking about Predator assassination missions, Hillary Clinton high-fiving over the death of Qaddafi, or unnamed top officials disclosing classified secrets about the cyber-war against Iran.
Yet at other times, amid promised defense cuts, the Obama administration loudly announces a strategic pivot away from the Middle East toward Asia, or derides the very antiterrorism protocols — Guantanamo Bay, renditions, tribunals, and preventative detention — that it later embraced.
Nothing is more dangerous in regard to the contemporary Middle East than misunderstanding the source of Islamist rage. Speaking loudly while carrying a small stick only makes that confusion worse.
What can we do?
Start developing vast new oil and gas finds on public lands here at home. Get our financial house in order. Quietly cut back aid to hostile Middle East governments. Put travel off-limits. Restrict visas and call home ambassadors — at least until Arab governments control their own street mobs.
Develop a consistent policy on the so-called Arab Spring that applies the same criticism of illiberal dictators to the theocrats who depose them. Keep quiet and keep our military strong. Don’t apologize for a few Americans who have a right to be crude. Instead, condemn those pre-modern zealots who would murder anyone of whom they don’t approve.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.” You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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