So, on a highly symbolic date, mobs storm American diplomatic facilities and drag the corpse of a U.S. ambassador through the streets. Then the president flies to Vegas for a fundraiser. No, no, a novelist would say; that’s too pat, too neat in its symbolic contrast. Make it Cleveland, or Des Moines.
The president is surrounded by delirious fanbois and fangurls screaming “We love you,” too drunk on his celebrity to understand this is the first photo-op in the aftermath of a national humiliation. No, no, a filmmaker would say; too crass, too blunt. Make them sober, middle-aged midwesterners, shocked at first, but then quiet and respectful.
The president is too lazy and cocksure to have learned any prepared remarks or mastered the appropriate tone, notwithstanding that a government that spends more money than any government in the history of the planet has ever spent can surely provide him with both a speechwriting team and a quiet corner on his private wide-bodied jet to consider what might be fitting for the occasion. So instead he sloughs off the words, bloodless and unfelt: “And obviously our hearts are broken . . . ” Yeah, it’s totally obvious.
And he’s even more drunk on his celebrity than the fanbois, so in his slapdashery he winds up comparing the sacrifice of a diplomat lynched by a pack of savages with the enthusiasm of his own campaign bobbysoxers. No, no, says the Broadway director; that’s too crude, too ham-fisted. How about the crowd is cheering and distracted, but he’s the president, he understands the gravity of the hour, and he’s the greatest orator of his generation, so he’s thought about what he’s going to say, and it takes a few moments but his words are so moving that they still the cheers of the fanbois, and at the end there’s complete silence and a few muffled sobs, and even in party-town they understand the sacrifice and loss of their compatriots on the other side of the world.
But no, that would be an utterly fantastical America. In the real America, the president is too busy to attend the security briefing on the morning after a national debacle, but he does have time to do Letterman and appear on a hip-hop radio show hosted by “The Pimp with a Limp.” In the real State Department, the U.S. embassy in Cairo is guarded by Marines with no ammunition, but they do enjoy the soft-power muscle of a Foreign Service officer, one Lloyd Schwartz, tweeting frenziedly into cyberspace (including a whole chain directed at my own Twitter handle, for some reason) about how America deplores insensitive people who are so insensitively insensitive that they don’t respectfully respect all religions equally respectfully and sensitively, even as the raging mob is pouring through the gates.
When it comes to a flailing, blundering superpower, I am generally wary of ascribing to malevolence what is more often sheer stupidity and incompetence. For example, we’re told that, because the consulate in Benghazi was designated as an “interim facility,” it did not warrant the level of security and protection that, say, an embassy in Scandinavia would have. This seems all too plausible — that security decisions are made not by individual human judgment but according to whichever rule-book sub-clause at the Federal Agency of Bureaucratic Facilities Regulation it happens to fall under. However, the very next day the embassy in Yemen, which is a permanent facility, was also overrun, as was the embassy in Tunisia the day after. Look, these are tough crowds, as the president might say at Caesar’s Palace. But we spend more money on these joints than anybody else, and they’re as easy to overrun as the Belgian consulate.
As I say, I’m inclined to be generous, and put some of this down to the natural torpor and ineptitude of government. But Hillary Clinton and General Martin Dempsey are guilty of something worse, in the secretary of state’s weirdly obsessive remarks about an obscure film supposedly disrespectful of Mohammed and the chairman of the joint chiefs’ telephone call to a private citizen asking him if he could please ease up on the old Islamophobia.
Forget the free-speech arguments. In this case, as Secretary Clinton and General Dempsey well know, the film has even less to do with anything than did the Danish cartoons or the schoolteacher’s teddy bear or any of the other innumerable grievances of Islam. The 400-strong assault force in Benghazi showed up with RPGs and mortars: That’s not a spontaneous movie protest; that’s an act of war, and better planned and executed than the dying superpower’s response to it. Secretary Clinton and General Dempsey are, to put it mildly, misleading the American people when they suggest otherwise.
One can understand why they might do this, given the fiasco in Libya. The men who organized this attack knew the ambassador would be at the consulate in Benghazi rather than at the embassy in Tripoli. How did that happen? They knew when he had been moved from the consulate to a “safe house,” and switched their attentions accordingly. How did that happen? The United States government lost track of its ambassador for ten hours. How did that happen? Perhaps, when they’ve investigated Mitt Romney’s press release for another three or four weeks, the court eunuchs of the American media might like to look into some of these fascinating questions, instead of leaving the only interesting reporting on an American story to the foreign press.