Shadow Government

It's not just the sparks that caused this fire in the Middle East

Precisely eleven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the question of U.S. relations with Islamic countries and communities is once again at the top of the foreign policy agenda. As violent anti-American protests rage around the world, the Obama administration has focused on safeguarding U.S. citizens and installations on one hand, and seeking to dampen the fury of the protests on the other by pointing out that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the anti-Islamic video that ignited this burst of anger.

While this immediate focus on quelling the crisis is prudent, the U.S. response cannot stop there. While the video in question may have catalyzed these protests, it cannot accurately be described as the cause of them. In any event, any effort to quash future provocations of this sort is bound to be futile -- given the ease by which such media can now be produced and distributed -- as well as profoundly contrary to the American belief in the right to free expression.

The current unrest is not in fact a result of a single offensive video, but is rather a continuation and outgrowth of the Arab uprisings of 2011. Those revolutions were the result of deep-seated political and economic grievances that had been decades in the making: the absence of economic prosperity or the hope of individual advancement, paired with the inability to do anything about it as a result of the simultaneous absence of political rights.

But while the Arab uprisings resulted from those grievances, they did not by any means resolve them. Indeed, economies like Egypt's and Libya's are worse off now than they were at the beginning of 2011, as unrest and political uncertainty have driven away tourism and investment and politicians have as frequently sought to settle old scores instead of taking their countries forward. Political participation has increased, but it has not brought results sufficient to meet the (unrealistic) expectations of the people in these countries.

In such circumstances, it is not unusual for people to look for others to blame. As much as the recent anti-American protests and attacks on U.S. embassies have conjured an image of a U.S.-Islamic conflict, the United States is in fact just one of many parties upon whom blame for the Middle East's woes has been cast. The former regimes, religious minorities, wealthy businessmen, Israel, and liberals are among those who have been targeted in these Arab uprisings.

Just as there is no shortage of parties to blame, there have been an abundance of parties both within and without these countries ready to stoke these hatreds to advance their own agendas. Radical Islamists have perhaps been the most pervasive and vocal of these, but certainly not the only ones. In many Middle Eastern states, secular politicians have been as vocally anti-American as their Islamist counterparts. Whatever their ideology, the angry voices have drowned out the introspective ones, and those preaching simple fixes have too often prevailed over those offering sensible albeit difficult paths forward. In highly-charged environments where security and political institutions are either absent or non-functioning, it is a small step from rhetorical attacks on such perceived foes to physical attacks.

At such a pivotal moment, it is important that we correctly understand what is happening and why, and mount the appropriate policy response. We must in particular avoid the temptation of misapprehending the current spurt of violence as the harbinger of some sort of epic civilization-level conflict between the West and Islam, or the urge to disengage with the Middle East in frustration over the persistence of anti-Americanism and chaos there. The Middle East remains a region which is vital to U.S. interests, and we cannot afford either to ignore it or to act in a rash or naïve manner there.

Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration has adopted a passive, hesitant approach to events, conveying the sense that America is increasingly disengaged, indifferent, or both when it comes to the Middle East. This can be seen in the disconnect between rhetoric and action on Syria, diffidence in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, "leading from behind" in Libya, and even in the talk of a "pivot" to Asia in our foreign policy. The result has been a diminution rather than an enhancement in both U.S. influence and -- despite strenuous efforts to avoid disputes with new governments in the region -- our popularity.

Going forward, the United States should not lose our hope for a positive future in the Middle East or confidence in our own ability to shape outcomes there. However, we should be clear-eyed about the challenges that we face and the long timetable which lies before us to accomplish what we set out to achieve. Foreign policy has three fundamental objectives -- to promote American security, prosperity, and to advance U.S. values. This should be the starting point for successful policy in the region -- firmly and unapologetically advocate our interests, help governments to reform politically and economically, and support and work with parties within and without the region who share our interests and values.

Any spark can start a fire, but a sustained conflagration requires fuel and oxygen to sustain itself. There is little U.S. policymakers can do to prevent future sparks of the sort that triggered the violence convulsing the Middle East today. But through a clear understanding of the region's challenges and a principled and realistic response to them, we and our allies can hope to prevent them from becoming infernos which engulf our interests and those of the region's citizens.

ADEK BERRY/AFP/GettyImages

Shadow Government

Second thoughts and renewed questions for Obama and Romney on the unfolding crisis in the Middle East

Like every other foreign policy specialist I know, I have spent the last week thinking and talking (hopefully in that order) about the unfolding crisis in the Middle East. My initial thoughts hold up pretty well, I think, but some revisions and extensions are in order.

First, an additional level needs to be considered: the ceremonial. The killing of Ambassador Stevens -- the first U.S. ambassador to be killed like this since 1979, a painful echo to the troubled times of the Carter administration -- elevated the crisis from mere anti-American riots into a far more serious dimension, one that called for a different, more elevated response than the Cairo riots required. President Obama performed well at this ceremonial level, and Governor Romney did not. For the subsequent 24 hours, Obama and his administration fulfilled the role of Mourner-in-Chief and Spokesman-for-the-Country, and did so with eloquent eulogies to the slain and to their professions. The anti-Romney critics were wrong to claim that Romney's less than satisfying performance of this ceremonial role called into question his capacity to be an effective commander-in-chief, but they had a legitimate point that Romney has a way to go before he can be as effective a Consoler-in-Chief as Obama. This is a reasonable, albeit limited, critique and the Romney team should take it on board and not dismiss it just because it is usually delivered in a package wrapped with partisan sneer.

Second, if I was too kind to Romney by omitting the ceremonial level of analysis, I was probably too kind to Obama on evaluating his performance at the tactical level. The more we learn about what was happening at the tactical level, the more troubling the picture gets. We still have much to learn, and hopefully a vigorous Congressional oversight process will bring this all to light, but here are just some of the questions that need to be resolved:

  • Did the administration ignore warnings of a deteriorating security situation, as CNN and the British Independent claim?
  • Of course the administration denies these explosive charges, but who is right in this classic he-said/she-said scenario and on what basis is the Obama administration issuing the denials?
  • Was the attack pre-planned, as the Libyan president claims, or was it merely a spontaneous outburst as the Obama administration claims? How does the Obama administration know it was merely a spontaneous attack?
  • If the Obama administration is right about the Benghazi raid, it does not absolve them entirely. How adequate were Ambassador Stevens' security arrangements and who approved them at higher levels? Did Secretary Clinton authorize a light-footprint security posture in Libya? How well did the administration weigh the risks associated with that decision? Why is the administration stonewalling on these questions now?
  • If the Obama administration is right about the Benghazi raid, it also raises the importance of the violent Cairo demonstrations. How well did the embassy manage those demonstrations and were any errors due to policy choices at a higher level? A friend of mine, a former ambassador from the region with extensive experience in these matters, asked me this question: Did Marine Security Guards (MSG) respond to the early formation of protests on the perimeter of the embassy according to standard operating procedures (which would have had the MSG patrolling in full combat gear as a deterrent that might have prevented the breaching of the embassy perimeter) and, if not, why not? If the story out of Cairo had been "Angry Protests Across the Street from U.S. Embassy" rather than "Egypt Protestors Scale U.S. Embassy Wall, Take Flag", it is reasonable to think the Benghazi copy-cat protests might have turned out differently (assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Obama administration is correct that there was nothing premeditated in the Benghazi attack).
  • Was Obama's Egypt-is-not-an-ally gaffe deliberate or merely sloppy? When he committed it, the administration was in fact pressuring Morsy, the Egyptian leader, to get on-side regarding the Cairo protests. It could well have been a deliberate slap designed to get his attention. Ironically, Romney showed some sympathy for the Obama position, so while this gaffe (alongside all of the other stumbles) proves that Obama has struggled to respond to the crisis, it does not by itself sharply distinguish Obama from Romney.

And, finally, those infamous tweets merit a bit more serious attention than most of the media has given them thus far. All along, Obama partisans have sought to criticize Romney for the timing and tone of his complaint about the tweet -- the complaint came late at night while the crisis was still unfolding and Romney reiterated the complaint rather than pivot to language befitting a Mourner-in-Chief once he learned about the fatalities in Benghazi. As I said in my original take, and repeat more forcefully here, I think there are legitimate complaints to make about Romney's timing and tone. But Romney's original complaint itself also had merit, and perhaps it is time to spend a fraction of the electrons devoted to criticizing how Romney said it to exploring what Romney said. When we do, several questions arise:

  • Why did the Obama administration criticize the tweets? Why is it acceptable for the Obama administration to criticize the tweets but wrong for Romney to do so?
  • What is the difference between the strategy underlying those tweets and the strategy underlying Obama's 2009 Cairo speech? Would an administration informed by a different "theory of the case" for how to respond to radical extremists in the region have produced similar tweets?
  • What is the difference between the tweets and Obama's own recent statements on the Cairo situation? The administration was actually asked this question and was totally unable to answer it. Why? 

Both the Obama and the Romney campaigns agree that the events of the last week raise important and perhaps awkward questions for the other side. I hope both sides will step up and answer those questions. That will only happen if we keep asking them.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images