There has been an ocean of ink and a vast number of electrons expended on the recent events in Benghazi, Cairo and in a dozen other cities in the Islamic world. It is likely that we are closer to the beginning than the end of the current crisis.
Much of the media coverage of these events both the crisis itself and the domestic political reaction to those events have created more heat than light. An unfortunate impression that remains is that the US was unprepared for terrorism on the 11th anniversary of 9-11, misunderstood what was actually happening on the ground and did not react clearly and strongly enough at the beginning of these events. What is the truth of the matter?
First let us clear away some of the fog. The tragic death of four brave Americans in Benghazi was not caused by an anti-Islamic video. This was a planned, coordinated attack by a terrorist organization which would have happened whether this video existed or not. Clearly the consulate and the "safe house" we're targeted. The real question here is why the security, especially on this 9-11 anniversary was not better.
The demonstrations, allegedly based on the video, would have occurred or could occur on some perceived slight to Islam in any case. The root causes of this unrest and violence go well beyond the video. Indeed, focusing on the video is merely a distraction from a bigger issue. Explaining our free speech society can do some good with people of good will but the sort of people who delight in chanting "death to America" are unmoved by such rhetoric. Indeed for them, America's free speech society IS the problem. Public diplomacy has a leading role in explaining our society and values to the world but we should be prepared for the fact that for some people our society and values are repugnant.
Cairo's demonstration may well have been another cover operation for the exercise of some terrorist act or simply a coincident uprising on the anniversary of 9-11. No matter what may be determined, it is clear that the new Egyptian government utterly failed in its duty to protect an foreign diplomatic establishment even though they knew of the demonstration in advance. Now two or three days later they may have "gotten the message" that this is unacceptable. This message should have been delivered earlier and stronger perhaps but it has been finally delivered.
The overriding issue is America's relationship with and within the region.
This is most certainly a subject of debate within the foreign policy elite but also a legitimate point of debate in this election year in the US. To claim that it should not be debated as some pundits and much of media insist because "politics stops at the waters edge" misses the point. That refers to criticism of an administration's foreign policy by opponents while abroad--not criticism of foreign policy period! Certainly in all previous presidential election campaigns candidates have not been reticent about criticizing the foreign policy of the administration in power. In a free society foreign policy as well as domestic policy must be subject to debate.
America's relations with counties in the region are complex; and in the post-Arab Spring era the relationship with "the Arab street" is even more complex and important. The dysfunctional relationship between the US and Israel in recent days and the increasing threat of a nuclear Iran only exacerbates an already volatile situation. President Obama's Cairo Speech early in his term of office, no matter what one might think of its wisdom, had the effect of raising expectations of a new American approach to the Islamic worlds. Sadly, these expectations simply were not followed up. The frustration and anger caused by dashed expectations combined with a series of mixed messages to the peoples of the region (the green revolution in Iran, "leading from behind" in Libya, the failure to stop the massacres in Syria, red lines and red lights regarding a nuclear Iran and Israeli concerns) and a general uncertainty as to American leadership has produced a toxic situation.
The Arab Spring had great potential and may still have that potential but the US has missed several critical opportunities so far and may need to rethink a number of current assumptions. Unless we are willing to recast some of the policies of the United States held by all administrations since the end of WWII, we may expect to find more angry mobs who don't like us or our values. That just may be the price we must pay for pursuing our core values and national interests in this dangerous neighborhood. Two things are for certain, however: (1) American foreign policy must be clear, resolute and clearly understood (that is public diplomacy's role) by both allies and adversaries. (2) When America creates expectations, America must follow through on those expectations--that is the essence of leadership.
This Blogpost first appeared on the Public Diplomacy Council's website.