Recent days have witnessed the emergence of two divergent narratives regarding the wave of anti-American protests that have spread throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
The first, which originated from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo at the very beginning of the unrest, is centered on the spontaneous and righteous indignation of the Muslim street in the face of an amateurish film defaming their religion. Although the administration subsequently distanced itself from the embassy's statement laying blame for the violence at the feet of the filmmaker, the assertion that the ongoing unrest was the result of a trailer posted on YouTube, rather than a more fundamental outpouring of rage, remains at the core of the administration's narrative.
The second narrative, which the administration appears keen to play down, involves a deliberate attack by an Al Qaeda affiliate on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although senior administration officials, most recently United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, have termed the attack a spontaneous event, such a view is increasingly at odds with the facts. In an interview with National Public Radio (hardly at the forefront of the vast right-wing media conspiracy) Libya's interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, described the attack on the U.S. consulate as pre-planned and multi-phased.
Each narrative is problematic for the Obama administration. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is a coincidence that this wave of protests began on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. But perhaps not. Regardless of its origins, the ongoing violence is stark testimony to the failure of the outreach to the Muslim world that lay at the heart of Obama's Middle East policy.
Obama, a Christian originally of Muslim heritage who lived in Indonesia and attended a predominantly Muslim school as a child, has seen himself as uniquely qualified to use the force of his personality to transform America's relationship with the Islamic world. Speaking in Cairo in June 2009, Obama pledged to repair relations with Muslims. The logic undergirding Obama's policy was that a conciliatory approach would increase America's standing and improve its security.
Such logic appears increasingly open to question. First, data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows that the United States is more unpopular now in key Muslim states than it was when Obama first took office. In 2009, for example, 74 percent of Jordanians held an unfavorable view of the United States; today it is 86 percent. In 2009, 68 percent of Pakistanis held an unfavorable view; today it is 80 percent. And in 2009, 70 percent of Egyptians held an unfavorable view of the United States; today, after Obama's Cairo speech and the overthrow of Mubarak, the number stands at 79 percent. In other words, the roots of Muslim rage lie not in who occupies the White House, but in more fundamental and less tractable causes.
Second, the logic of Obama's policy was that if Muslims liked the United States more, then Americans would be more secure. Despite Obama's admonition that U.S. leaders not "spike the football" in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration has initiated repeated bouts of chest thumping. In recent months, administration officials have repeatedly portrayed Al Qaeda and its affiliates as organizations in decline.
The situation on the ground would appear to be somewhat different. Aside from the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, the U.S. position in Afghanistan has suffered setbacks at the hands of Al Qaeda's friends, the Taliban. On Friday, U.S. forces at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan suffered an attack that killed two Marines and destroyed seven percent of the AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft in the U.S. combat inventory. Yesterday the U.S. military suspended combat patrols with Afghan forces because of a mounting wave of attacks by Afghan security forces on their American partners, undermining the thrust of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
It remains to be seen how the past week's events will affect the presidential election. At the very least, these emerging narratives call into question Barack Obama's stewardship of American foreign policy. More seriously, they could prefigure a more serious weakening of our position in the Middle East.