For many American observers, the killing of their ambassador to Libya last week and the protests that followed across Muslim countries, only confirmed many of the suspicions that drive anti-Islamic sentiment. The events also thrust relations with the Muslim world, which had remained a non-issue, to the forefront of the U.S. presidential election and thereby public consciousness. But perhaps more importantly, reaction to the events documented just how xenophobic and fanatic perceptions in both the West and the Islamic world remain as we try to wind down over a decade of war on terror and cooperate in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The remarkable acts against U.S. embassies indicate that the Obama administration's efforts to pivot toward Asia in order to lighten America's footprint in the Middle East may prove difficult. It should now be evident that Arab animosity is not derived solely from opposition to Arab authoritarianism. And, that large segments of the Muslim world view the West's sudden embrace of democracy there as a sort of counterrevolution. Now, that some sentiment has subsided, it is important to reflect on some of the incidents that contextualize the week's events and their implications for going forward.
The most important takeaway
should not have been the mere confirmation of Muslim radicalism. Instead
onlookers should have noticed a pernicious irrationality underlying perceptions
in both the West and Muslim world. The dilemma started with protests in Egypt
and Yemen on Wednesday September 11, 2012, in reaction to an anti-Islamic film
posted on YouTube in June. The video was translated into Arabic and aired on
Egyptian television only in the days that preceded the events. As a popular
Egyptian Facebook page pointed out, before such spectacle the video had a mere
500 YouTube views.
Public outcry was then craftily exploited by a group of Libyan jihadists who mobilized an attack on the American consulate and by the time Americans woke up on Thursday, they were inundated with news about the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The events were quickly declared as "an act of war," and the massive displays that followed only documented the ability of Al-Qaeda inspired ideologues to utilize isolated incidents to confirm their conspiratorial views and the desire of the West's powerful institutions to use them to continue a clash of civilizations.
It was almost as if the
perpetrators of the attack acted on a predictable American overreaction.
Paternalistic and patronizing public figures immediately fed into news coverage
that portrayed a typical anti-Arab bias. Press, pundit and politicians of both the liberal and conservative
stripe trumpeted an Islamic exceptionalism, the notion that that Muslim world
is inherently unfit for democracy. This
stereotype appeared alongside the typically unrecognized American hubris
touting the U.S. aid and intervention that assisted removing Gaddafi but
refusing to reminisce on its longstanding support for monarchy and dictatorship and
or the haphazard consequences of American occupation over the last 10 years. Instead
media figureheads were awestruck by Arab rage and resentment.
As CNN's Carol Cenello reiterated in clips running repetitive over half hour blocks, "How can they do this to us after we brought them democracy?" Amazingly, protests spread like wildfire across the Muslim world.
Mitt Romney pounced on the opportunity to resuscitate his dwindling campaign and quickly denounced a White House memo that criticized the anti-Muhammad movie and its makers. "It is disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic missions but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks," Romney said. Unfortunately, Romney's team failed to realize that, the memo was released hours before the attacks in Benghazi occurred.
Nevertheless, the criticism elicited an immediate response for Obama who refused to be portrayed as a dove. "We're gonna bring those who kill our fellow Americans to justice," he repeated as he launched two Navy Destroyers and dozens of Marines to the shores of Libya, authorized unmanned drones to hum over Benghazi, deployed an FBI investigation team and then classified the democratically elected government in Egypt "a work in progress," while refusing to label it an ally.
American congressmen followed suit and called for freeze of aid to Egypt after its Islamist president Mohammed Moursi failed to criticize his public's will and immediately condemn the protests. Within hours, demonstrations spread across the region and the "experts" began wondering whether the reaction was solely about a film or perhaps had something to do with more widespread anti-Americanisms. A week of vivid imagery confirming the stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs followed.
The Collapse of Obama's Pivot from the Middle East
It is difficult to predict what
will ensue. But, future reflections on the events will most certainly mark an
official conclusion of Barack Hussein Obama's rhetorical approach to the Middle
East. Four years ago, those in Washington hoped that Obama's lofty rhetoric
would automatically change Muslim sentiment after eight years of direct
imperialism under Bush. Obama's trip to
Cairo in his first year was to reestablish relations between the West and
Muslim world soften some of the anti-Americanism.
However, as we near the end of his first term, direct occupation may be over in Iraq but the country is in shambles, the Afghan surge is complete but little has been achieved and western-backed Arab authoritarianism has been replaced by the rise of moderate Islamist regimes; Osama bin Laden may be dead and General Motors is alive but Al-Qaeda linked groups have established all sorts of new sanctuaries in the wake of the Arab Spring. And Public opinion polls document an approval rating for Obama in the Middle East on par with Ayman al-Zawahiri's, Bin Laden's successor. That is hardly a successful record on foreign policy.
It should be evident that Obama's
course in the Middle East actually conforms to what scholar Fawaz Gerges calls
a "structural, institutional continuity in American foreign policy"
viewed through a lens of Israel, oil and strategic interests. The animosity
visible during the week of uproar confirmed what Professor Gerges explains in
his new book Obama and the Middle East as the birth of a multipolar world
[where] America no longer calls the shots as before nor dominates the regional
scene in the way it did after the Cold War ended.
America's ability to act unilaterally and hegemonically, unconstrained by local context, has come to an end."
The Obama administration was reluctant to get involved in the Arab Spring. Some experts have attributed such reluctance to Obama's realization that the massive protests were not about America at all. A more realistic assessment would recognize that the administration hoped its distance would, somehow preserve the status quo, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. But by the time protests erupted in Libya, western powers recognized any failure to endorse region-wide alteration would dissolve any ability to influence the eventual outcome.
It is perhaps ironic that awareness of America's limited influence will come about as a result of events in Libya. Obama belatedly supported intervention in Libya and did so only after it became apparent that rejecting a responsibility to protect civilians there would further dampen Arab opinion of the West. However, the refusal to apply that principle in Syria since has documented that such principles only apply where they coincide with broader U.S. interests. There was certainly awareness that supporting Libyan rebels would help the West shape its new government and provide potential lucrative opportunities for foreign investment. Additionally, American planners saw humanitarian intervention as a possible means of preserving its hegemony over the region.