A few days ago on The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb praised President Obama’s handling of the unfolding crisis in the Middle East last week and evidently discerns no connection between the ensuing wave of anti-American violence and the broader parameters of American foreign policy. He is wrong on both counts. The administration’s crisis management has been mediocre. Even more fundamentally, the current assault on America’s position in the Middle East is attributable not to the trailer for an obscure anti-Muslim movie, but to Obama’s own foreign-policy failures.
The administration’s crisis-management strategy continues to emphasize its regret about that film, Innocence of Muslims. This was manifest not only in the original (and subsequently retracted) statement from our embassy in Cairo, but in all statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the president. But deploring efforts to denigrate Muslim religious beliefs is only the first half of the sentence. The administration should have also robustly propounded its commitment to the virtues and values of free expression in a free society, and why this must necessarily encompass offensive speech. Whenever the White House mentions the First Amendment these days, it is done mostly in a defensive mode, by way of explaining (almost in sorrow) to the Muslim world why the U.S. government cannot legally suppress anti-Muslim films rather than a compelling explanation of why such films should not be suppressed. As Clinton stated on Sept. 14, “I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day.” But simply saying that free speech is “enshrined in our Constitution” is not enough—the administration must explain why that is a good thing to which they too should aspire.
The administration also has failed to tell the Muslim world that Western critics of religion, far from singling out Islam, regularly unleash a torrent of offensive speech directed at Christianity and Judaism. In addition, no senior administration official has seen fit to elucidate any historical perspective on America’s relationship with the Islamic world, including our unparalleled record of support for Muslim causes. Brief references to U.S. support for the Libyan revolution is not sufficient—this must be at the center of our message to the Muslim world. America and its NATO allies have spent their own blood and treasure to protect Muslims facing slaughter and oppression in places ranging from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Kosovo to Iraq.
Equally lacking has been any public manifestation of the administration’s anger about the anti-American demonstrations that have taken place over the last week. Simply condemning violence is not enough. The administration must make clear that there can be no justification for any protests against America as a country simply because some private Americans have exercised their First Amendment rights in an offensive manner. And Washington’s failure to do so is viewed as the ultimate manifestation of American guilt, thus enflaming, rather than calming, the situation.
The administration has also conspicuously failed to criticize publicly President Mohammed Morsi and other Arab leaders, whose responses to the anti-American demonstrations have been slow, equivocal, and relatively ineffective. Indeed, to this day Morsi has condemned violence but endorsed the anti-American protests from which it ensues. The fact that the Egyptian prosecutor-general has found time to indict several American citizens, allegedly associated with the production of an anti-Islamic film, is both a violation of international law and a sign of disrespect for the United States.
Morsi’s behavior is particularly deplorable because the U.S. was instrumental in bringing him to power, first by easing out President Hosni Mubarak and later by playing the leading role in restraining the Egyptian military during the post-Mubarak transition. The fact that Morsi has unimpeachable Islamic credentials, and is therefore in an excellent position to both speak out forcibly and act robustly against anti-Americanism, makes the administration’s failure to call him to account all the more glaring.
But all of this flawed crisis management pales in comparison with the administration’s strategic failures. The organizing principle of the administration’s foreign policy is one of weakness and passivity—whether in dealing with Russia, China, or Venezuela—coupled with a conspicuous rhetorical abdication of American leadership, evident in speeches by the president, secretary of state, and other administration officials. The ultimate irony for an administration oft-praised for superior rhetoric is that in today’s tightly knit global environment, words have palpable consequences.
This overarching problem is accentuated by the fact that everybody in the Middle East—our friends, foes, and folks in between—has correctly concluded that the administration has begun America’s disengagement from the region, on a scale unseen since the days of the British withdrawal from “East of Suez.” This has manifested itself in virtually every facet of our Middle East policy, from our failure to maintain any American military presence in Iraq and the consequent loss of diplomatic and economic influence in Baghdad; to Washington’s unwillingness to rally the American public to support our military efforts in Afghanistan and its repeated snubs of our strongest traditional Middle East ally, Israel; to our leading from behind on Libya and the total failure to lead from any direction on Syria; and last but not least, to our timidity in confronting the Iranian nuclear weapons program. As a result, the Middle East elites and the proverbial “Arab street” have concluded that the U.S. is a waning power, Israel’s future is one of a besieged state that someday may disappear from the regional chessboard, and Iran has an excellent chance of becoming a regional hegemon, to be feared and placated.
These are self-inflicted wounds. The American disengagement has not been caused by military defeat or some adverse international developments that we have tried but failed to stop, but by an administration that has profoundly misunderstood the kind of world we live in, the types of threats we confront, and what constitutes vital American interests. The administration has amassed not just a middling or even moderately bad foreign-policy record, but an appalling one. It is this record that is shaping the way the governments in the Middle East are handling the anti-American unrest. Unless the record is decisively reversed, it will lead to many disastrous developments down the road.