Politics & Policy

America as Pill Bug

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad
Closing our embassies was prudent in the short term. But what message does it send?

We’ve all run across the pill bug in our gardens. At the first sign of danger, the tiny paranoid crustacean suddenly turns into a ball — in hopes the danger will have passed when he unrolls.

That roly-poly bug can serve as a fair symbol of present-day U.S. foreign policy, especially in our understandable weariness over Iraq, Afghanistan, and the scandals that are overwhelming the Obama administration.

On August 4, U.S. embassies across the Middle East simply closed on the basis of intelligence reports of planned al-Qaeda violence. The shutdown of 21 diplomatic facilities was the most extensive in recent American history.

Yet we still have over a month to go before the twelfth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, an iconic date for radical Islamists.

Such preemptive measures are no doubt sober and judicious. Yet if we shut down our entire public profile in the Middle East on the threat of terrorism, what will we do when more anti-American violence arises? Should we close more embassies for more days, or return home altogether?

Apparently al-Qaeda did not get the message that the administration’s euphemisms of “workplace violence,” “overseas contingency operations,” “man-caused disasters,” and jihad as “a holy struggle” were intended as outreach to the global Muslim community.

#ad#Instead, the terrorists are getting their second wind, as they interpret our loud magnanimity as weakness — or, more likely, simple confusion. They increasingly do not seem to fear U.S. retaliation for any planned assaults. Instead, al-Qaeda franchises expect Americans to adopt their new pill-bug mode of curling up until danger passes.

Our enemies have grounds for such cockiness. President Obama promised swift punishment for those who attacked U.S. installations in Benghazi and killed four Americans. So far the killers roam free. Rumors abound that they have been seen publicly in Libya.

Instead of blaming radical Islamist killers for that attack, the Obama reelection campaign team fobbed the assault off as the reaction to a supposedly right-wing, Islamophobic videomaker. That yarn was untrue and was greeted as politically correct appeasement in the Middle East.

All these Libyan developments took place against a backdrop of “lead from behind.” Was it wise for American officials to brag that the world’s largest military had taken a subordinate role in removing Moammar Qaddafi — in a military operation contingent on approval from the United Nations and the Arab League but not the U.S. Congress?

No one knows what to do about the mess in Syria. But when you do not know what to do, it is imprudent to periodically lay down “red lines.” Yet the administration has done just that to the Bashar al-Assad regime over the last two years.

In a similar vein, the administration has so far issued serial “deadlines” to the Iranians to cease the production of weapons-grade uranium. They don’t seem much worried about yet another deadline.

In Egypt, the United States went from abandoning ally and crook Hosni Mubarak to welcoming the freely elected and anti-American Muslim Brotherhood. Now, we are both praising and damning the military junta that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi. Do we still call that “the Arab Spring”? Is a junta still a junta, a coup still a coup?

Our entire anti-terrorism agenda is a paradox. Obama ran for office on the promise of shutting down Guantanamo Bay, curbing the Patriot Act, and ending renditions, preventive detention, and drone attacks. Then, in office, he went both hot and cold on all of them.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder hinted at trying accused terrorist killers such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian courts and holding CIA interrogators legally responsible for enhanced interrogations. Then, the administration abruptly dropped those bad ideas and embraced or expanded many of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols — and in many cases went far beyond anything envisioned by the prior administration.

These paradoxes were not lost on our terrorist enemies. The successors to Osama bin Laden apparently guessed that the Obama administration might not like America’s anti-terrorism policies any more than the terrorists themselves did.

News that the FBI scrutinized and then apparently forgot about unhinged Islamists such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Major Nidal Malik Hasan sent the wrong message to terrorists. Was the Obama administration more worried about hurting feelings than it was concerned to prevent further attacks?

Other rivals and enemies are now fully aware of our new pill-bug mode in the Middle East — and are willing to bet that it might apply everywhere. Without apparent worry over the U.S. reaction, Russia has given tentative asylum as a reward to Edward Snowden, who singlehandedly exposed — and sabotaged — a vast National Security Agency spying network. Increasingly, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan seem to be on their own with a bullying China, unsure whether to bend or resist.

Meanwhile, the new American pill bug curls up in hopes that the mounting dangers will just go away.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Press. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2013 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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