Presidential confidante and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice took to the Sunday-show circuit this weekend in an effort to spin the cascade of violent anti-American protests in the Muslim world into a story about the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. In the course of this impossible task, Ambassador Rice made a number of dubious claims, but perhaps none was more dangerous and stupid than this bold declarative to ABC’s Jake Tapper:
What transpired this week . . . in Cairo, in Benghazi, in many other parts of the region, was a direct result of a heinous and offensive video [entitled “The Innocence of Muslims”] that was widely disseminated, that the U.S. government had nothing to do with, which we have made clear is reprehensible and disgusting.
The baffling assertion that the protests were a spontaneous and unmediated reaction to an amateurish YouTube video that anteceded them by a month so strains credulity that we have to assume the administration doesn’t even believe it. House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) has said that there is preliminary evidence that the Benghazi attack was premeditated and well-planned. In Cairo, Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaeda caporegime Ayman al-Zawahiri, was at the front of the horde. Other protesters were reportedly paid. They burned American flags and ran up al-Qaeda colors in their place. They chanted “Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!” And they did it all on the anniversary of September 11.
We may not think much of the president’s foreign policy, but we find it difficult to believe he could see all this and think “if it hadn’t been for that damned YouTube video . . . ”
The truth is that the video was a pretext, and the attacks the consequence of a deep current of anti-Western rage that persists in the Muslim world despite the president’s famous “Cairo speech” and the muddled engagement strategy for which it was the synecdoche. Because the administration cannot admit this — perhaps not even to itself — its spokesmen trot out patent absurdities such as Ambassador Rice’s and present them to a largely compliant media. Unfortunately, this does violence not just to the facts, but to that preponderant American value: the freedom of speech.
To say that the besieging of American missions abroad, and the murder of American diplomats, is “the direct result of a heinous and offensive video” is to implicitly legitimize such a causal connection; it is not more than a step or two removed from saying that the victim of a crime was “asking for it.” To lead not with condemnation of the killers but with apologies, epithets, and disclaimers for the speech acts alleged to have incited their rage, is to incentivize the kind of thinking displayed by the Egyptian prime minister, who said that the attacks on U.S. embassies were not wrong per se but merely misdirected because the United States government hadn’t actually produced the video. And to append embarrassed defenses of free speech aimed at Muslim extremists with soothing invocations of freedom of religion, as the Cairo embassy staff did and the administration continues to do, is to miss the point of both liberties in a tragically ironic way: Under the First Amendment, the free-speech and free-exercise clauses are both compatible and complementary. Under the Islamism that drives the embassy besiegers, the one is, as the vice president would say, literally the mortal enemy of the other.
Nor have the crimes against free speech been merely rhetorical. Before police brought in the video’s creator for “questioning,” ostensibly over whether he violated the terms of a 2010 probation agreement, the federal government reportedly requested that YouTube investigate whether “The Innocence of Muslims” violated the site’s terms of service, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs himself placed a phone call to a Florida pastor to ask him to withdraw support for it.
This not-so-subtle coercion occurs against the backdrop of renewed efforts to globalize anti-blaspemy laws, efforts with which the current administration has shown a troubling sympathy. In 2009, in what American diplomats said was an effort to “reach out to Muslim countries,” the administration joined with Egypt, the representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to introduce a hate-speech resolution at the U.N. It called on all states to “take effective measures to combat” religious hate speech. Last year, Secretary Clinton followed up with an initiative, called the “Istanbul Process,” under which the State Department, together with the OIC, is seeking ways to implement other U.N. resolutions against “religious stereotyping.” But the OIC’s final objective is to obtain the international criminalization of blasphemy against Islam, and such missteps by the administration give the appearance of validating this repressive effort.
All of this unjustly undermines free speech, and for a problem it never caused in the first place. Rice’s statement, and the official administration narrative it reflects, is thus built on both empirical and moral errors. It is both incorrect and, in a profounder sense, wrong.