In recent weeks, violent protests erupted against American (and other) Embassies and employees in various Muslim countries in the Middle East-North Africa region. Despite extensive media coverage and analysis, I believe that there are still some key things which have not been said. Moreover, the inadequate and largely hypocritical responses of the Obama administration and the Romney campaign indicate that the mainstream American political establishment still has not learned the essential lessons for US foreign policy to succeed in the Middle East.
The most important lesson which this collection of incidents highlights is that the American approach to foreign policy and diplomacy is in need of a serious overhaul. The same misunderstandings which have plagued the US in Afghanistan and Iraq (and undoubtedly since well before 9/11) continue to prevent American foreign policy from advancing and protecting its own interests. This is fundamentally an issue of putting things in perspective and understanding different perspectives. Until there is a qualitative change in the American approach to foreign policy (and in the media), we seem doomed not only to fail to foresee challenges abroad, but to continue to overreact and mis-react to such events. Here then, are some general points illustrating these misunderstandings, as well as a suggestion for a more successful approach.
One of the points made which has been talked about is whether these events were foreseen. The general sense from reading Western media, and official statements, was one of unprecedented spontaneity in anti-American violence. Others have criticized the White House for knowing about and failing to sufficiently respond to the threat of violence in Libya and other foreign locations. Both of these arguments are wrong and obfuscate the real issues at play. Regardless of American resources, we cannot provide enough security to ensure protection in foreign conflict zones. (In the summer of 2009 I spent several hours trying to enter the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, passing through numerous levels of Egyptian and Israel security, speaking in Hebrew and showing my documentation to repeated Israeli security officers before finally being allowed in. The site seemed like an impenetrable fortress. Last year the site was breached, security over-run, and the entire diplomatic staff temporarily returned.) That should and must be the job of the host country. Where the US administration appears to have failed is in communicating and coordinating with host governments—that attacks on our embassies are wholly unacceptable must be made patently clear to everyone involved. Ultimately our security on the grounds will be reliant on the host country—and that is a matter of communication, coordination, of diplomatic priorities. Calls for increased security and US military are foolish. The larger the American presence, the greater will be the target for our enemies. Moreover, an overt American military presence has the potential to radicalize anti-American sentiment. Our military should be used to wage war, not to establish peace (especially in regions where the military may be strongly associated with brutality against citizens).
On the other hand, the idea that the attacks on US targets were unforeseeable is equally untenable. While clearly of less interest to most Americans, all of the post-dictatorship countries in the Middle East have been undergoing cycles and bouts of violent confrontations. Libya in particular, had all of the warning signs—not of a populist anti-American protest, but of a rise in Salafi-jihadi violence, in the form of a wave of attacks on Suffi Islamic sites in Libya. The issue there is completely divorced of any video; it is one of a violent, radical minority. In fact, the attacks are actually a response to a very positive development—the electoral defeat of Islamist parties in the first round of democratic Libyan elections. With the political loss, these groups are acting out of desperation, in the process further alienating themselves from the Libyan mainstream.
The response called for in this case, holding true in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, etc., is multilateral. At the formal Track 1 level, it must be equally clear to all of our allies that security of American interests must be assured. At the same time, the overt American military presence should be minimized. Less formally, the focus should not be the current one: “we condemn hateful videos, but freedom of speech must be guaranteed.” That argument is self-defeating and ineffective. We need a more fundamental approach, one geared for post-dictatorships still trying to build liberal democracies. The focus should be on freedom of speech, but on how unhappy citizens can utilize their own freedom of speech to spread messages of peace, as well as messages contradicting messages of hate, on conducting peaceful protests. These are things Americans take for granted, but we cannot afford to assume that our potential allies do as well, given decades of totalitarian rule.
Perhaps most significantly, this crisis presented an opportunity, one completely squandered by the State department, to undercut any support for anti-US Salafism. The ideology supporting attacks on the US is the same one behind the destruction of mosques, shrines and tombs in Africa and elsewhere. If Muslims worldwide are upset by a cinematically appalling youtube clip insulting the Prophet Mohammad, emphasis should be on the conversion of Mohammad’s home to a public toilet and the innumerable other travesties of Islamic holy sites. It is the Salafi-Wahhabi movement which is opposed to the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, a celebration welcomed in the United States but illegal in Saudi Arabia. The same ideology and movement attacking Muslims and Muslim sites is the one behind anti-American sentiment—this is the truth that we must not only recognize, but openly share.
Finally, we need to work with local religious and ethnic leaders, true moderates, to promote understanding and pluralistic thought, liberal democratic governance, through endogenous, accepted figures and institutions. Those parties are there; we need to find and work with them. Libyan, Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni citizens should not be taught that freedom of speech is a weapon of the West, but a tool equally accessible to them as it is for their detractors. They should be shown who the true enemies of their faith are.
In conclusion, there are several important lessons which can and should be taken from recent events in the Middle East. Quite understandably, the region is going through a period of immense, intense, change; the phenomenon of attacks on American embassies constitutes neither the first nor the last manifestation of this reality. It is imperative that Western media and citizens and especially governments, recognize the nuances of each situation before reacting. However, it is also critical that the American foreign policy approach be revamped—relying more on coordination, communication and cultural understanding.
Above all, a multilateral campaign is called for, strengthening and emboldening true partners, grass-roots and governmental, weakening or severing the ties with political groups counter to liberal democratic values, and publically emphasizing the ties between anti-American behavior and the widespread oppression of Muslims worldwide by the same ideology and ideological groups. With the new dynamic of the Middle East, a foreign policy method which may have been effective in dealing with dictatorial regimes is obsolete. It is imperative that the masses of the Middle East, the only forces who can truly defeat Islamism, be enlisted, allied with and empowered. The ‘war on terror’ may have begun militarily, but its successful conclusion requires a diplomatic strategy.