Like old King Ethelred the Unready, who either had no counsel or had no sense, or both, and often paid the Danegeld rather than attempt to deter the Norsemen, so Barack Obama and his lieutenants still believe that they can both appease radical Islam and convince others that is not what they are doing.
Various top-ranking U.S. officials, for instance, following the lead of President Obama himself, for days insisted that the murder of the American ambassador to Libya was a spontaneous act of a crowd that got out of control, enraged by the release of an anti-Islamic video trailer posted by an illiberal private American resident. We were to believe that the fault was not millions of medieval Islamists abroad who hate the West, but one Coptic American at home who had crude taste and ill intent.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney both insisted that the killings of our people in Libya had nothing to do with anti-Americanism, much less anger at or disdain for the White House or administration policy — leaving their audiences wondering at what point in the future they would simply retract or ignore all the untrue things they were now asserting.
Of course, no one believed that narrative — not when the video had been in the public domain for months without incident (is there even a film that follows the trailer?), not when some diplomatic personnel in the Middle East had been put on higher alert in response to Islamist promises of violence, not when it was the iconic eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 killings, not when “protesters” brought in heavy weaponry to assault our facilities, not when there was a long history of radical Islamists using trivial affronts — from Danish cartoons to papal communiqués — as catalysts for preplanned violence.
So why those unusual efforts to downplay the circumstances around the gruesome death of an American ambassador?
The murdering of Americans in Libya is, embarrassingly so, the logical fruition of a failed — and increasingly dangerous — foreign policy in the Middle East. We missed out on siding with the Iranians who went out in the streets in 2009 to protest their country’s theocracy. Instead President Obama warned us about our own past culpable interference in the internal affairs of Iran. But note that Iranian reformers were far more likely to oppose fundamentalist, anti-American theocrats than were the more favored protesters in Egypt two years later. There is now no real obstacle to Iran’s acquisition of the bomb, and administration surrogates in the media instead talk of containment, as if Iran were a Pakistan with an archenemy, 1 billion–strong nuclear India next door.
Our loud announcements of withdrawal from Afghanistan have left us unable even to accompany the allied Afghan army on patrol. We just suffered our worst loss in planes since Vietnam, without press attention or a comment from the commander-in-chief. Few believe that the Taliban will not be in power in 2014. Iraq was once secure and open to discussions over a vestigial American base; now snubbed, it is left intriguing with Iran, the assumed regional hegemon.
The Obama administration was confused about the Egyptian revolution — mum on the old allied authoritarian Hosni Mubarak until it was clear that he would lose power, then rushing in to embrace the dissidents, then declaring the Muslim Brotherhood to be “secular,” when it was clear that the Google crowd would not assume power, as if Cairo was supposed to have been a pre–Palo Alto. Now Morsi, the former Egyptian dissident, who found freedom, employment, and security only in America, lectures us on what we must do to win his friendship, and the conditions under which he is willing to accept nearly $2 billion in American aid.
No one knows what we were doing in Libya — either strategically or tactically — other than offering up the cute phrase “leading from behind,” which was supposed to denote a new hybrid soft/hard-power protocol. Apparently when the crowds appeared to go 51 percent against Qaddafi, the new monster — thought to be in rehabilitation — became once more the old monster worthy of being bombed.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad went from being a “reformer,” to a thug who had to go, to someone better left out of sight, out of mind. The more the administration declares our relationship with Israel unchanged, the more we know it has deteriorated to the lowest point in the history of the Jewish state — largely because Benjamin Netanyahu has been demonized as a right-wing trouble-maker who on any given day might do something to embarrass the Obama administration in the Arab world during the election campaign. If only he were as smarmy as David Letterman or Whoopi Goldberg, he might have earned an audience with the president.
In short, there is no good or bad administration policy — but rather no policy at all other than braggadocio about the killing of Osama bin Laden and Moammar Qaddafi and Predator score cards.
The murder of Ambassador Stevens may well have been the most horrific killing in our nation’s diplomatic history. The administration’s original narrative — that the ambassador got separated from his security detail, suffocated amid the smoke, and was found unconscious by well-meaning Libyans who, in concern, rushed him to the hospital — cannot be true. Some disturbing rumors and evidence later emerged to the effect that Stevens may have had no real security detail to speak of, but was helped only by the brave ad hoc service of some private security contractors, who gave their lives to save an American diplomat without military support. More disturbing even than the absence of adequate military security was the likelihood that Stevens was attacked viciously by the mob, perhaps sexually brutalized by it, and then taunted by his killers, before being dumped in the street. In the long history of attacks on our embassies, I cannot think of a comparable instance where an ambassador was caught alone, mobbed, tortured, and photographed in extremis — or where an administration was so averse to disclosing any details of his demise.
Obama genuinely seems to believe that he, his administration, our present foreign policy, and America 2012 are somehow not the real objects of hate of the Arab Street mobs. That disconnect was also the theme of his mythmaking in Cairo, of his al-Arabiya interview, and of his apologetic commentary to the French and the Turks: A pre-Obama America was hubristic, insensitive, and culpable for damaged bilateral relations and would be acknowledged as such by an Obama America.
When Daniel Ortega enumerated the crimes of the United States in the presence of the president, Barack Obama did not defend his country, but simply shrugged, “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.” In other words, Obama felt that while his country may not have been innocent, he, a mere toddler at the time, most certainly was — and that he is innocent now as well.
In the context of the Middle East, Obama is thus naturally confused by the violence. He had assumed the Islamic mobs realize that America changed after 2008. So while Muslim complaints against the United States certainly had some validity at one time, such writs can no longer be valid after Obama assumed the presidency. The Arab Street could not possibly be angry at Barack Obama, the Nobel laureate and sympathetic supporter of Arab Muslims. The murdering must be an artifact, a fluke brought on by some right-wing, provocative American zealot, whose constitutionally protected rights to obnoxious free expression are overshadowed by the damage he has done in giving millions the impression that a reset America of 2012 still bears some resemblance to the America of 1776 to 2008.
We can see this disconnect in both the serious and the trivial: from Obama’s use of the adjective “natural” to describe unhinged mobs attacking U.S. properties over a video trailer, to his new personalized campaign version of the American flag. In that sense, one cannot entirely damn Mr. Morsi as he lectures America on its shortcomings — given that much of his complaint merely follows up on Obama’s own. Thus he may feel that he is ingratiating himself with the administration by channeling the Cairo speech.
If Obama were a conservative Republican, a George W. Bush for example, the media narrative of Libyagate would be one of an asleep, incompetent president, lieutenants who were brazenly mendacious, an incompetent secretary of state, and an administration conspiracy of silence — juxtaposed with a wider story of a disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, an abandonment of any influence in Iraq, a refusal to recognize the situation in Syria and Egypt — and impotence as a war looms between Iran and Israel.
Will we ever know the circumstances that led to the murder of Ambassador Stevens? Only when government auditors and inquirers feel free to find and disclose the truth, which probably means sometime after the Obama administration is well out of office.