On Riots and Rage in the Greater Middle East

With riots against the U.S. (over an abominably stupid video) the Middle East has again forced itself into the center of the US news cycle (although the Syrians must be happy, since they aren’t on the front page.  One hates to be cynical, but four dead Americans trumps about 100 dead Syrians.  Over at Politico‘s Arena they keep asking questions, and I can’t help but submit answers.

The other day Politico asked where the death of Amb. Stevens leaves the U.S.  I answered:

Exactly 11 years after 9/11 it appears the United States has suffered another tragedy at the hands of Islamist terrorists. 

The storming of the American Consulate in Benghazi and killing of several Americans is certainly not on the scale of the carnage in 2001.  But it will have a substantial impact.

The latest news indicates that the attack was carefully planned and the attackers used the protest as a cover to attack the consulate itself, where a rocket-propelled grenade started a fire that took the lives of four American Foreign Service officers, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

This attack was almost certainly a target of opportunity and the radicals who carried it out probably did not know what big game they had in their sights.  Nonetheless, this was a serious blow.  The murder of an ambassador is a highly symbolic loss. 

But Ambassador Stevens in particular was an experienced diplomat who had liaised with Libya’s opposition as they sought to overthrow Gaddafi.  Such a person would have been invaluable as the United States now tries to help the new Libyan government move that long-suffering country towards stability.  Individuals with this kind of on-the-ground experience are in short supply and the absence of Ambassador Stevens and the other members of his team who were killed will be felt.

Obviously, Embassy security around the world will be increased.  Unfortunately, doing so complicates the ability of American diplomats to do their job of engaging other nations and people, making the United States seem a more remote and less accessible nation.

Today Politico asked if Romney could have prevented the deadly protests in the Middle East.  I answered:

Could a President Romney have prevented the outburst of violence in the Middle East?  It is certainly possible, but unlikely.

Consider the real tools available to presidents.Perhaps Romney and his National Security team would have better assessed the threat levels in the Middle East and increased embassy security and worked with the region’s governments to head off these threats.  But that means the White House is being used as an analysis and operations center doing tasks that are normally handled several layers lower in the bureaucracy.  Perhaps the White House could do the job better – but not necessarily.  And is that what a president should be doing with his (and eventually her) time?

Alternately, a President Romney could have delivered a firm message to these governments that the U.S. Embassy and other American interests must not be attacked.  However, some of the countries do not appear to be under tight control – the Libyan government clearly did not want this protest to happen but had limited tools to stop it.  The Egyptian government’s behavior has been more ambiguous – but, as presidents quickly learn, getting other countries to do what the United States wants is devilishly hard.  Further, even when it works there are always consequences.  It may not be as neat as Newtonian physics, but actions lead to reactions.

At the core of the bottomless well of Middle Eastern anger is their fundamental sense of humiliation and powerlessness at the hands of the United States and West.  This does not mean that this situation is our fault or that we should apologize for who we are.  Sometimes tough messages and pressure are absolutely necessary. But we do need to be aware that strong-arming Middle Eastern governments feeds that anger.

A hypothetical President Romney delivering tough messages to the governments of the greater Middle East would probably be interpreted by the people of the region as just another sign of their weakness and their own government’s fecklessness.  In effect, this might have enraged the mobs even further.

Let’s not leave it there.  Years ago, when I worked for MEMRI, I edited the translation of a fascinating article by a Palestinian psychiatrist Iyad al-Siraj (who was no friend to Israel).  He wrote:

We teach our children that it is permitted to express anger with muscle; we even encourage them to do so in the belief that it is part of the meaning of courage and honor. By doing so, we forget the best part of our Arab heritage and Islamic religion, as well as all that is in Christianity: forgiveness, self-control, overcoming feelings of rage, patience, restraint, and using the mind. Don’t be surprised that we shoot our guns and pistols at our festivities and we don’t even learn when there are casualties – as if the gun has become a symbol of virility in the eyes of those who mislead themselves, those who also believe a mustache is the symbol of virility.

There is an enormous amount of this anger, for so many reasons – some legitimate others not.  It is stunning to most Westerners who have never had anything to do with a riot how quickly mobs seem to form and turn ugly in the greater Middle East and on what seemingly flimsy pretexts.  Middle Eastern leaders, governments, and movements have profited by playing to this anger and the United States has few tools with which to calm this rage (and in the death of a skilled diplomat we have one less).

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