Allow me to deviate slightly from the emerging consensus that President Obama stepped in it mightily when he said that “I don’t think we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.”
How would you characterize a regime where the security forces are unable or unwilling to protect U.S. soil, where the locals storm the embassy, trash it, remove and destroy the U.S. flag, and replace it with a black Islamist flag reading, “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet”? Does that seem like the actions of an “ally”? How do you characterize a regime that takes a day to issue any statement responding to such an attack, one whose denunciation is tepid, one that urges its embassy to attempt to take legal action in the U.S. to restrict the rights of an American to criticize Islam?
I don’t doubt that the declaration that the U.S. no longer considers the Egyptian government to be an ally will have considerable reverberations in Cairo and U.S. diplomatic circles — but those reverberations ought to pale in comparison to the storming of an embassy on 9/11, and a series of attacks on U.S. soil and personnel in the region.
Obama’s mistake is much bigger than the “ally” comment; it is his vision and approach, which we’ve seen for years. His mistake has been viewing Prime Minister Morsi, the government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the entire Arab Spring with rose-colored glasses.
Is the security around our embassies and consulates lax because we underestimate the anti-American currents in the driving philosophies of the Arab Spring? Can anyone argue that the Obama administration has had a realistic sense of anti-American attitudes in the region, and the dangers they present?
The Washington Post’s foreign-affairs columnist, David Ignatius, had a fascinating throwaway line in his column today:
The Salafists’ assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi at first appeared to be a “copycat” attack like the one in Cairo, but U.S. officials said it may have been planned by extremists linked to al-Qaeda. They were augmented by a well-armed Islamic militia. Their anger, again, is mixed between a baseline anti-Americanism (sadly, always a draw in the region) and a challenge to Prime Minister Abdurraheem el-Keib and the secularist parties that are the backbone of the new Libyan government.
A key goal of U.S. policy ought to be fighting, refuting, and discrediting this “baseline anti-Americanism.” The people of the United States have been the go-to scapegoat for every two-bit demagogue from Algiers, Algeria, to Lahore, Pakistan. With almost metronomic regularity, somebody with aspirations of political or religious power decides that easiest way to build up a following is to declare that the economic, political, or moral problems of their neighborhood are the fault of Americans. They and all of their buddies choose to lash out with a demonstration at the U.S. diplomatic post. On a quiet day, it’s just banners and chanting; on a bad day, good Americans get killed, just for showing up to work.
We have leverage with these regimes, none more so than Egypt, which receives enormous sums of foreign aid and is seeking billions in debt relief. If these regimes want to be considered allies, and want those wonderful American dollars to keep coming, they have to push back against knee-jerk anti-Americanism. We cannot be the all-purpose bogeyman in the political rhetoric of states that claim to want to be our friends, a convenient caricature for regime spokesmen to trot out when they need to distract from their own failures.
The demonization of America is so pervasive in Egyptian media it even percolated freely in the English-language press under Mubarak. No one’s asking foreign governments to shut down voices critical of America; just to refute the lies and stand up for our reputations, to stop letting us be the perpetual villain in all of their political discussions.
Obama’s problem isn’t one stray comment. Our problem is the policy he has pursued from Day One.