Let’s leave aside how shameful it is to argue that the anti-American violence which has swept much of the Muslim world was not targeted at America generally. We have overwhelming evidence that it was (e.g., “USA Go To Hell!”). Let’s leave aside the even greater shame of apologizing for a 14-minute spoof in order to spare the tender feelings of people who attack churches, burn Bibles, propagate incitements and blood libels like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, degrade women and homosexuals and virtually every ethnic minority they come in contact with, and celebrate when Americans are killed. Let’s leave all that aside, because the practical implications of the administration’s response are even worse than the shame of it.
The essential task of diplomacy is to preserve the security and stability of the international system. By affirming that the “trigger” for the violence in Muslim countries was the conduct of private people in the United States, what the administration has done is to make its international relations officially subject to private conduct. But few principles could be more dangerous for the international system.
A main reason we maintain diplomatic practice is precisely to immunize international relations from popular disruptions. The wall between the U.S. government and protected speech here at home must be as inviolable as the wall between U.S. embassies and the Arab street. Indeed, they are the same wall, meant to accomplish the same separation.
For the U.S. government to try to manage the social psychology of perpetually aggrieved Arabs by interfering in constitutionally protected private conduct is not just a fool’s errand. It is an evil errand, for it makes our government the tool of enemies who seek our submission. And it ignores the very dangerous development we are witnessing, which is the apparent breakdown of our ability to maintain safe embassies in the Muslim world. That breakdown is an institutional failure of other governments, and of our own. It has absolutely nothing to do with any spoofs of any deity, nor with whatever dumb reason may be motivating hateful people to get violent on the Arab street.
The Obama administration has been at pains to argue that the attacks on our embassies are not protests against the U.S. as such, but only protests against some reprehensible conduct by some person or another. But it doesn’t make any difference. The only responsibility of the U.S. government in the current crisis is to secure our embassies and ambassadors against whatever threat they may face — chiefly by ensuring that other governments are willing and able to meet basic obligations of sovereignty. That responsibility is as solemn as safeguarding both the international system and our constitutional rights. In that sense, the administration’s public response has been a dereliction of duty.
The administration needs to get out of the gutter of irrelevant disputes among private citizens, and get back to the task of protecting our international relations.