September 14, 2012 § 6 Comments
This is not what I was planning on writing about today, but the protests and riots in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc. require a few words.
1. I don’t quite understand the argument advanced by some that Obama or Clinton or any other government official should not have condemned the movie clip that started this whole mess. As I have written many times before, I am a free speech absolutist and do not believe that anyone should ever be censored, but that is not the same thing as arguing that hateful and abhorrent speech should be completely consequence-free. Nobody within the government is suggesting that the people behind the film should be arrested, fined, or sanctioned in any way, which is precisely what freedom of speech is meant to protect, but it does not then follow that the film should not be criticized (and let’s please put the ridiculous “apologizing for American values” canard to rest, since apologizing and condemning are two very different things). Freedom of speech means that you get to say whatever you want and that others get to say whatever they want in response. To those who are complaining that Obama and Clinton condemned this film but let plenty of other hate speech pass without comment, I would remind you that the primary responsibility of government is to protect its citizens and it is possible that the government’s condemnation will save some American lives by defusing the situation. It is also why the comparison to the Piss Christ exhibit a few years ago is a bad one, since nobody’s lives were in danger in that situation. While it might feel good to get angry at what appears to be a blatant double standard, the bottom line here is that we must deal with the world as it is rather than how we want it to be, and condemning the film while making it crystal clear that this type of speech is always allowed in the U.S., as Clinton did yesterday, is absolutely the right move in my view.
2. I also don’t quite understand the calls for trying to place the violent response to the film in a larger context of demonization of Islam or mistreatment of Muslims in Western countries. There is nothing that justifies the violence that is taking place against U.S. embassies, foreigners, journalists, and others, not to mention that tarring all of the U.S. with the brush of demonizing Islam is no different than portraying all Muslims as terrorists. I do not think that the film results from an environment in which is widely acceptable to dehumanize Muslims, but even if that were indeed the case, it does not justify the response in Libya, Egypt, or Yemen. I would also add that the rioting is going to do absolutely nothing to convince the reprehensible characters responsible for this film that their views are wrong, and is in fact going to have the precisely opposite effect.
3. Following 9/11, there was a concerted effort on the part of the U.S. government and other governments across the world to stress that the actions of al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden did not represent Islam and that Muslims should not be held collectively responsible for the actions of a small extremist group. I agree with that 100% and believed at the time and still believe now that it is the correct approach to take, since Bin Laden should not be viewed as a proxy for Islam or for Muslims more generally. By the same token, this film needs to be accorded the same standard, since a couple of nutcases in California do not speak for or represent the U.S. government or American society. The notion expressed in countless interviews with protestors and implicitly suggested by the actions of rioters is that the U.S. must answer for this film, which is completely ridiculous.
4. Something that I am eager to have explained to me by someone whose understanding of Islamic theology is deeper than mine (and I am not being sarcastic; I am genuinely interested): why is there an assumption on the part of the rioters and protestors that Muslim religious principles should be universal? An article in the Egypt Independent on the reasons behind the protests in Egypt quoted a protestor explaining his anger by saying, “It is forbidden to depict the Prophet, especially when they say the exact opposite of the truth about him.” I get that the prohibition exists in Islam, but I don’t get why that means that non-Muslims across the entire world have to adhere to it. Judaism forbids eating milk and meat together, but Jews are not going around burning McDonalds franchises because they serve cheeseburgers, nor are Mormons ransacking Starbucks stores because they sell caffeine. For that matter, Islam forbids eating pork and drinking alcohol but Muslims are not demanding that all of Earth’s 6 billion residents refrain from having a beer with their barbecued ribs. Why is the expectation that everyone adhere to Islam’s prohibitions on depicting the prophet, and why does it only apply in this case but not to other activities prohibited by Islam? Again, I am not being snide but am actually looking for an answer.
5. I can’t help but note that as Arab countries literally burn, the Turkish response has been entirely different. I have not seen one report yet of any protests in Turkey over the film, and certainly no rioting or threats to the U.S. embassy. Two thoughts from this: first, this is as good a proof as any that blaming Islam wholesale for what is going on at the moment is not capturing the story accurately, and second, it is further evidence that the people who talk about Turkey’s “Islamist government” or describe the AKP as Islamist radicals have no clue what they are talking about.
6. Finally, for those waiting for things to get better, I have a sinking feeling that you’ll be waiting awhile. Arab publics have a seething resentment against the U.S. for all sorts of reasons, and if you think that these protests are simply about a film, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. The depth of the problem should be quite evident by this point following U.S. backing for democratic change in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and other places over the past 18 months that has bought it little credibility or leeway in these very same countries. I don’t know what the answer is for U.S. policy short of shuttering embassies and completely disengaging from the Middle East, which is obviously not a real option. I do know that we should expect violence targeting U.S. interests for years to come because people are upset for a host of reasons, some more legitimate than others, and this will not abate any time soon.
September 13, 2012 § 5 Comments
We Americans have a tendency to look at situations and think that they revolve around us. The best recent example of this has been the debate over America’s role in the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening, Islamist Winter, or whatever other term people are using these days) and the view that the U.S. was somehow the decisive actor in determining whether or not regimes fell. We can debate all day whether President Obama was right to withdraw support for Hosni Mubarak – and I for one firmly think that he was – but there is simply no question that Mubarak would have fallen anyway even if the U.S. had backed him to the hilt. The revolution in Egypt was not about us, nor did we have the ability or wherewithal to control it. Yet this idea persists that “we needed to back our allies” and that Mubarak would still be the modern day pharaoh of Cairo had we wanted him to stay put, all stemming from this mistaken paradigm that insists on seeing all world events as revolving around the U.S. In many, if not most, instances, political events overseas have little to do with the U.S. in more than a tangential manner, and even when they do involve the U.S., it is in an indirect way.
This brings me to the latest dustup between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, which began when Netanyahu responded to Hillary Clinton’s statement that the U.S. did not see a need to issue any red lines over Iran by saying, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” This was of course a direct reference to the U.S. and set off all sorts of reverberations, beginning with Israel letting it be known that the White House had rejected a request for a meeting between the two leaders, Obama and Netanyahu speaking on the phone for an hour late Tuesday night, and Senator Barbara Boxer releasing an astonishing letter that she sent to Netanyahu in which she wrote, “Your remarks are utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance, evidenced by President Obama’s record and the record of Congress,” and “I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?”
The fireworks between the two countries were immediately interpreted as Netanyahu’s attempt to leverage the U.S. presidential campaign season against Obama. The very first sentence of the New York Times story on the affair is “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear ‘red lines’ on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike.” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, ”Now Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election—one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC.” The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu’s statement lashing out at the administration over the lack of red lines on Iran is an attempt to force Obama’s hand before the election or to create enough problems for Obama with pro-Israel voters and groups that it will swing the election to Romney. In short, Andrew Sullivan’s most dire prediction come to life.
The focus on the presidential campaign is a misreading of what is actually going on here that stems from the American pathology I laid out at the top of this post. Netanyahu’s harsh words are not aimed at the presidential race but are a result of what I imagine to be his deep and maddening frustration that he cannot force an Israeli strike on Iran. The point of Netanyahu’s verbal barrage is not to sabotage Obama or influence the 2012 vote for president, and in fact is only directed at the U.S. because he has already emptied his chamber on Israeli leaders opposed to a strike and cannot publicly criticize the person – Ehud Barak – with whom he is actually frustrated. Barak has reportedly changed his mind about the wisdom of an Israeli strike because he has come to realize what it will mean for U.S.-Israel relations, and without Barak on board any hopes Netanyahu has of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities are completely dashed. Netanyahu cannot go after Barak, however, since he cannot afford to alienate him or to let everyone know that the two men are no longer of one mind on this issue, and so he is reduced to directing his intemperate words at the U.S. and the Obama administration as the indirect causes of his current anger. Netanyahu’s outburst is not about the presidential campaign or presidential politics, but about what he views as an Israeli national security imperative that is being stymied by an array of forces. The fact that this is campaign season in the U.S. is only incidental, since Netanyahu would have issued a similar statement at the beginning or middle of a presidential term. His prism is an Israeli one, not an American one, and his focus is on Iran rather than on U.S. politics. Believe it or not, Israel has other concerns aside from the Obama-Romney contest. Yes, what is going on in the U.S. obviously impacts this entire issue, but the notion that what Bibi said yesterday is about the presidential campaign here is just the latest data point for the case that knowledge of Israeli politics on this side of the ocean remains poor.
August 13, 2012 § 2 Comments
The big news in the Middle East over the weekend was new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s sacking of the twin leaders of the SCAF, defense minister Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Anan, and annulling the SCAF’s previous constitutional declaration that gave it wide ranging legislative and executive powers. For some analysis about what all of this might mean, try Marc Lynch or Issandr El Amrani or my friend and fellow Georgetown compatriot Hesham Sallam. I have my own thoughts, but I’d instead like to make a wider point about what this tells us about American influence. One of the most notable aspects of what happened yesterday is that the president of Egypt got rid of the defense minister, chief of staff, and service heads with one fell swoop, yet the U.S. had absolutely no hint that this was coming. To give you a sense of just how much of a surprise this was, remember that last month Hillary Clinton met with Tantawi separate from her meeting with Morsi while in Egypt, and I’d wager that the meeting with Tantawi was the one that contained a more in-depth and far-ranging discussion. A couple of weeks ago Leon Panetta was in Egypt and he met with Tantawi as well and afterward said that “it’s my view, based on what I have seen and the discussions I’ve had, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends.” Doesn’t sound like a guy expecting Tantawi to be forced into early retirement just two weeks later, does it? It also doesn’t sound like a guy particularly eager for such a step to be taken.
I do not mean to suggest that Egypt has any obligation to run its policy by the U.S. before doing anything, since Egypt is a sovereign state and has the right to do whatever it likes in this regard. It is certainly curious though that Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually from the U.S. in military aid, not to mention the fact that the U.S.-Egypt relationship is largely built on military to military ties and security issues, and Morsi did not feel the need to even give the U.S. a heads up that this was coming down the road. I understand the need to keep a move like this quiet before it happens, but there’s no way this was a snap decision; it’s not like Morsi woke up yesterday morning and just felt like replacing Egypt’s entire military leadership. That the administration or DoD did not know about this beforehand – and David Ignatius is clear on the fact that they did not – says a lot about the limits of American influence these days. Clinton and Panetta just wasted a whole lot of time for nothing, and irrespective of whether Morsi did this on his own or whether it was the result of an internal military coup (after all, Tantawi and Anan were both replaced by other SCAF members), the shadow of the U.S. should be long enough that either Morsi or other senior officers would have told someone here what was about to go down. It’s tough to imagine the U.S. having zero inkling of a complete turnover of Egyptian military leadership five or ten years ago, and I think this isn’t just about Morsi but about the Egyptian military as well.
Egypt is not the only place where the limits of U.S. influence are strikingly apparent. Israel is awash in speculation that Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have made the decision to strike Iranian nuclear facilities this fall, despite the fact that the U.S. has sent a parade of officials to Jerusalem – including Panetta on that same trip two weeks ago - pleading with Israel to give sanctions some more time. Again, as with Egypt, Israel has every right to do what it wants, particularly when it has legitimate fears about Iran, but compare this to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which U.S. influence with Israel was so strong that it was able to convince Israel to sit tight as Saddam Hussein launched 42 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and other Israeli populations centers. Of course, Israel has not yet launched an attack (and I plan on writing later this week about why I remain skeptical that it will), but the fact that it is being so openly contemplated and Israeli officials are saying nasty things to the press about American knowledge and intelligence capabilities demonstrates the depths to which U.S. influence with Israel has fallen. Israel is contemplating a strike despite not having the weaponry to completely eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and despite U.S. public and private assurances that it will not tolerate Iran producing a nuclear weapon, and that tells you all you need to know about waning American sway.
Power can be measured in lots of different ways. From a military/resources standpoint, the U.S. is doing perfectly fine. But power consists of many other things as well, such as persuasion or being kept in the loop. On these other measures, this weekend highlighted pretty clearly that U.S. influence could use some real strengthening.
March 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Perhaps the most famous moment of the 2008 presidential campaign was when Hillary Clinton ran an ad showing sleeping kids safe and sound in their beds with a phone ringing in the background and implying that Barack Obama was not prepared to answer a phone call in the middle of the night detailing a national security crisis. A couple of weeks before the election and well after he had been selected as the vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden told a crowd of Democrats at a fundraiser that Obama would be tested by other international actors looking to take advantage of his inexperience within six months of taking office. Both of these episodes caused a furor given that Obama’s area of greatest weakness upon assuming the presidency was widely seen to be national security, and it contributed to his choosing Biden – who had chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – as VP and retaining Bob Gates as his secretary of defense. These moves were meant in part to convey a sense of continuity and expertise on the part of the new administration and assure supporters and foreign adversaries alike that the Obama White House would be able to hold its own.
The news reported by David Igantius today that Osama Bin Laden ordered attack plans to be drawn up for an assault on Obama’s airplane any time he would be in Pakistan or Afghanistan is remarkable in this light because of Bin Laden’s rationale. His reasoning was that Biden would then become president, and that Biden was “totally unprepared” for the role and would embroil the U.S. in a crisis! Isn’t it remarkable what sitting in the Oval Office can do for your image?