Monday, September 17

There's one problem with the 'Insult to Islam' explanation for the attack on U.S. embassy in Cairo

Last week a reporter in Cairo told the FNC audience that small anti-American protests had been going on for months outside the U.S. embassy there, with protesters routinely throwing Molotov cocktails, bottles and stones at the embassy walls.  He didn't get this information through heresay; Fox had at least one reporter stationed there and observing the situation at the embassy and in nearby Tahrir Square for months. 

Here American readers might well ask, 'Why in the Sam Hill did Fox News wait until the situation blew up before letting us know what was going on there?'

That's not the only thing Fox -- and CNN -- didn't report to Americans about what was going on in Egypt prior to last week. But it didn't take Fox News to clue Americans that anti-Americanism had started manifesting openly in Egypt within a couple months of Hosni Mubark's overthrow.  Since then the mainstream press has been full of reports on the steadily escalating resentment there against Americans; although of course these reports haven't been on Page 1, except for the time some American NGOs got into hot water with Egypt's military, which accused them of meddling in the country's affairs.

Different explanations have been given for the growing resentment. And during the past year different factions -- the Copts, Muslim conservatives, the military, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal democracy activists -- have expressed anger against America to any inquiring Western reporter willing to listen and scribble notes.

Why?  Why are they angry at us?  Wasn't it enough that the American government fully backed the Tahrir Square protests and very quickly backed the demand that Hosni Mubarak step down?

If you put all the complaints together in a paper bag and shake the bag, then reach in and draw out the first one your hand touches, I think it would read, "Betrayal."

No matter how different the specifics of the complaints about America, the undercurrent in all of them is a sense of betrayal. 

They are afraid that as the American government betrayed Hosni Mubarak, so it will betray them.  So in Egypt, at least, the anti-Americanism is not primarily about Islam and the clash of cultures. It's about the American government crossing one of human nature's red lines. Once any one of those lines is crossed, one can expect the most savage hatred and actions in response.

In the case of Egypt, no matter how many Egyptians wanted Hosni Mubarak gone, once the heat and dust of the protests settled down, human nature looked at how readily the Americans betrayed Hosni and said to itself, "If they did it to him, they'll do it to anyone, including me."

As to how much I think this view was a factor in all of the anti-American riots that exploded last week, there were a great many things going on last week, and anger about the anti-Islam video was certainly in play.  But New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick passed along a telling observation in his September 16 report, Cultural Clash Fuels Muslims Angry at Online Video:
Some commentators said they regretted that the violence here and around the region had overshadowed the underlying argument against the offensive video.

“Our performance came out like that of a failed lawyer in a no-lose case,” Wael Kandil, an editor of the newspaper Sharouq, wrote in a column on Sunday. “We served our opponents something that made them drop the main issue and take us to the margins — this is what we accomplished with our bad performance.”
Yes. For several years now the smartest Islamist activists have rejected violent jihad just because it works so much against their case for Islamist government.  So you may trust such activists were not happy about the riots. 

Virtually all the major anti-American riots around the world were organized, although how far in advance of September 11 and how coordinated they were with each other -- and the extent to which violent jihadi factions were responsible for the organizing -- remain open questions.  (Except in the case of the Benghazi raid, which was very clearly a straight-up commando operation.)

From this, I'd venture that a sense of betrayal was not so much a factor in the riots outside Egypt. However comma the perceived betrayal of Hosni Mubarak was followed by a spectacular American violation of another of human nature's red lines, which I term the Law of Leaving.  The law is that the more people have come to depend on you, the more careful, elaborate and drawn-out your leave-taking should be.

President Obama violated the law in February of this year when he summarily announced an early withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan. This was on top of an earlier announcement that the U.S. was withdrawing from Afghanistan sooner than the Afghans had expected. After the second announcement Afghanistan became like a powder keg.

The lit match was a purported incident of Koran burnings at Bagram Airfield. The Afghans had always complained about Americans in Afghanistan not showing enough respect for Islam. But the sense of betrayal they felt at the USA leaving them in the lurch channeled into their anger about the burned Korans incident. The upshot was that Afghanistan exploded into anti-American violence.

All this is famously known throughout the Muslim world, just as Obama's decision to throw Hosni Mubarak under the bus is known. So within a very short period, the United States has projected the image not of weakness, as many Republicans claim, but of a military juggernaut that seems to operate in the most unpredictable fashion while trampling human nature's red lines.  If many Americans are unsettled by this profile, imagine how other peoples feel.

This is not to say that Americans or the Obama Administration were the cause of the anti-American riots that exploded last week.  I'm not blaming the victim.  But it's no help to be in the right if human nature becomes outraged with you.

From human nature's point of view, the basic equation is that the more powerful you are, the more clearly and carefully you must signal what you're going to do, if you're going to radically change something.   So for American defense and foreign relations policymakers, it's not a matter of the U.S. projecting strength; it's not a matter of defending liberty and promoting American values. Nor is it about being sensitive to other people's cultures and religious values. All these things can have a place in policy, but not as the first priority for a hyperpower nation. The first priority it to be as predictable as a democratic government can manage in its foreign relations. 

That's half the battle won, right there. Peoples are willing to forgive a great deal about the actions of a powerful nation if it's reasonably predictable in its relations with them.

Additional Readings

Reuters, Sept. 17: Muslim protesters rage at United States in Asia, Middle East (about Sept. 17 riots)
Reuters, Sept. 17:  Intel agencies warned U.S. Embassy in Egypt of possible violence
VOA, Sept. 17/18:  Protests Spread Over Anti-Islam Film (about Sept. 18 riots)

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