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No. It wasn’t the dopey, hateful movie trailer that caused the anti-American, anti-Western riots in some 33 countries and the tragic death of the four American officials in Benghazi, as the Obama administration contends. Nor were what Governor Romney’s campaign calls President Obama’s “naïve,” inconsistent Middle Eastern policies responsible, despite team Obama’s inchoate explanation of them.
And yes. Both the trailer and policy missteps undoubtedly played a role in the mayhem. The “disgusting” film, as Secretary of State-turned film critic Hillary Clinton called the 14-minute trailer, offended many Muslims and sparked at least some of the protests.
The Obama administration’s clumsy missteps, including perhaps, insufficient attention to the security of American personnel and property in advance of the protests, may also have exacerbated an already highly charged situation. UN Ambassador’s Susan Rice’s assertion on the Sunday talk shows that the protests had everything to do with the film and nothing to do with hostility towards American policy or America was jaw-dropping.
But the roots of the current violence lie in the decades, indeed, centuries of deep seated Muslim resentment of the West. The current round is the by-product of an ongoing power struggle in the Middle East in the wake of the dramatic Arab Spring upheavals.
Ever since Arabs rid their nations of autocrats that Washington long considered allies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, pragmatists and extremists have been battling for control – secularists against Islamists, pragmatic Islamists against radical groups and extremists. These Arab civil wars are likely to rage for some time. At stake is the future of a region which despite its vast oil resources has slid further behind the West (and the East) in economic, political, and cultural competitiveness, according to the Arab Development reports based on World Bank data.
The US can affect the outcome of these power struggles through astute or ill-conceived policies, but only marginally. Washington will have limited ability to determine the outcome of these struggles, just as President Obama could not have “stopped” the Arab Spring upheavals, as so many commentators now suggest.
Generalizations about such waves of rage are dangerous and misleading. Egypt is not Libya.
Remember that secularists beat Islamists in Libya's first free and fair election. Libya’s government immediately denounced the attacks and vowed to work with Washington to punish the perpetrators and prevent future terror. And 80 percent of Libyans in a recent poll say militants threaten their country’s future. That is welcome news too often forgotten.
What happened to our diplomats in Benghazi and how it happened is still unclear. While Amb. Rice asserted Sunday that she saw little reason to believe that the attack was pre-planned or the result of an Al Qaeda-linked plot, Libya’s new prime minister, Mohamed el-Magaref, said the opposite. Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said based on his CIA briefings, it was too soon to tell.
More is starting to be known about the Cairo protest, a less deadly affair. Many commentators criticized the initial statement issued by the U.S. embassy from Egypt – with the approval of the embassy’s number two, in the absence of the ambassador. The statement, which condemned the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,” seemed overly apologetic and insufficiently dedicated to free speech. But it was issued three hours before the protests had even begun – and before Amb. Stevens had been killed. One official said it was aimed at preventing American deaths at the embassy – which it apparently did. Seeing an American embassy wall breached, the flag torn down and a black jihadi flag raised in its place is stomach churning. But no Americans died in Cairo and none was injured. There were roughly 50 people inside the embassy, and 5,000 rioters outside.
Obama officials in Washington subsequently distanced themselves from their embassy’s initial statement. (The Romney campaign, by contrast, never retracted the governor’s charge that President Obama sympathized with those who had waged the attacks.) The White House asserted that the embassy’s initial statement had not been cleared by Washington. But several officials said that Washington clearance was not required because the statement was intended to defuse a growing crisis and for Egyptian consumption only. The statement was eventually replaced with a more balanced version, but only after the threat to the 800-plus embassy officials in Cairo had passed and Amb. Stevens’ death had been confirmed. The State Department has some 14,618 full-time employees at its embassies and facilities overseas, the agency says, many of whom may have found themselves in danger had the protests spread at the peak of Muslim rage to their capitals as well.
After some hesitancy and a late night chat with President Obama, Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi issued a statement -- in Arabic, too -- saying that Islam required that diplomats be protected. He alsoordered Egypt’s police to prevent a repetition of the attack. Dozens of Egyptian police and protesters were hurt in subsequent street fights, but no Americans were injured.
Issandr el Amrani, of the closely read “The Arabist” blog, reported that the initial protest had been called not by the Brotherhood, but by a small extremist Salafist group led by Mohammed Zawahri, the brother of Ayman al Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s chief. After the first day of rage, Morsi withdrew the Brotherhood’s call for more protests. The Brotherhood may be Islamist and militant, but it must now try to rule Egypt. Governing 88 million people with such inflated expectations and limited resources will be challenging. It may prove impossible without America’s $1 billion debt reduction package and the $4.8 billion IMF loan the Brotherhood now seeks. Morsi is no moderate, but he is still committed, at least rhetorically, to peace with Israel and counter-terrorism with the West.
Conservative Republicans, including Senator John McCain, have warned about precipitous moves in Congress to sever aid. Navigating the political currents of the greatest shift in the Middle East in almost 50 years will be challenging, for Obama or Romney. But given the mood on the Nile, Morsi is unlikely to be replaced by a Jeffersonian democrat any time soon.