The Reckoning

Does Anti-American Violence Mean Obama Has Failed?

Islamic students burn videos

Islamic zealots in Pakistan joining the video da fe.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

The soul searching over the consequences of America’s qualified support for the revolutions of the Arab Spring in 2011 has gotten a bit out of hand. Is there anyone who has ever been outside the United States who is surprised that anti-Americanism exists? Is there anyone who has ever been to the Middle East shocked that Islamic radicals can mobilize mobs and whip them into a frothy murderous frenzy?

As he addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, President Obama no doubt will feel compelled to condemn the kind of opportunistic violence that led to the death this month of four Americans, including our ambassador to Libya.*

But the president should not dwell on this topic. For just as extremists are using the appearance of an anti-Islamic video on YouTube as an excuse to fan violence and anti-American hatred across the Arab world, Obama’s opponents are using it at home to attempt to draw a direct line between the president’s decision to tip the balance against the dictatorial Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 and the death of Americans in Libya.*

Granted, a presidential election campaign is in full swing, and Israel’s less-subtle supporters always viewed Obama’s refusal to help prop up Mubarak as reckless and more evidence of his lack of concern for Israel’s security. 

But claiming, as the American right currently does, that Obama has appeased American enemies and caused chaos with a needless intervention in Libya is not only incorrect factually, it’s also contradictory. How is it the same voices so eager to plunge into the carnage in Syria—a far more complex and difficult intervention case—seem to believe that the existence of anti-American factions in post-Qaddafi Libya proves we should never have supported rebels there?

What nonsense. Anti-Americanism has deep roots in the Arab world that will not be addressed with a few nice words and subtle shifts of policy. Surely, the first step down that road is ending the practice of lavish support for Arab rulers who torture and repress their people?

Furthermore, the existence of violent groups does not mean the entire society supports them; as here, the loudest, crudest, and most violent often get the attention.

The perspective of hard-line Israeli supports is equally flawed. If Israel’s security was based on the lifespan of a dictatorial octogenarian in Egypt, then Obama did Israelis a favor by forcing them to face the reality that ultimately their security must include not only deals with the devil but also genuine accommodation with the people these devils rule.

In the U.S., meanwhile, a campaign to “blame” Obama for the death of Chris Stevens and others killed this month at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is particularly perverse.* Anyone working in an American diplomatic post in the Arab world is fully aware of the dangers posed by the militant Islamic fringes of these societies, and none seemed more devoted to the policy of making the most of the opportunities afforded by the Arab Spring than the late Ambassador Stevens.  

For all these reasons, Obama should refrain from using the U.N. speech as a chance to address the false accusations either of maniacal Muslims or fanatical right-wingers. History will be the judge of his handling of the Arab Spring, not the blogosphere.

Instead, address the wider world, Mr. President, and call some bluffs, in the Middle East, where Iran’s bluster should be seen for what it is, in Europe, where the Russians shamefully prevent coherent action to end Syria’s bloodshed, and in East Asia, where China should be shamed into sitting down with its neighbors to have a mature conversation about maritime disputes. The bluffs back home can wait for November.

The best way to honor the Americans who lost their lives in Benghazi is to refuse to bend to extremism whether it appears in the Middle East, the Pacific Rim, or the homeland.

*Corrections, Sept. 25, 2012: This blog post originally stated that the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia and other Americans were killed in Tunisia last week. The deaths occurred in Libya on Sept. 11. The post also misspelled the last name of late Ambassador Chris Stevens.