The violent attacks on the U.S. missions in Cairo, Egypt, and Benghazi, Libya, are far too important to be reduced to fodder in a campaign debate. We should be focused on this question: How could this happen in a country that we helped liberate and a city we helped save?
The death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans is perplexing because of the lead role the United States played in the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and the fact that NATO intervention saved the rebel capital in Benghazi from being overrun by regime soldiers bent on slaughter. The question is especially poignant because Stevens was an Arabic speaker with long experience in Libya who had served as U.S. emissary to the Libyan rebels.
Yet Stevens was killed, on the anniversary of Sept. 11, in a demonstration against a bizarre 13-minute film that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad. How could a ludicrous video cause such a tragic result?
For several reasons: Because radical Salafi groups deliberately advertise such films to manipulate crowds who would never otherwise know these videos existed. Because poor Muslims in Third World countries are vulnerable to anti-Western diatribes and have no grasp of constitutional principles such as freedom of speech.
Because many Muslim leaders are too fearful – or too weak – to crack down on the hard-line Salafis on their far-right flank. And because, in the YouTube era, hard-line Salafis can instantly reach thousands.
Ditto for flamethrowers such as the maker of the film, who said he wanted to showcase hateful Islam, or Florida pastor Terry Jones of burn-the-Quran fame, who helped him. Both men were eager to stir up violence, cloaked in their free-speech rights. They share in the blame for what has happened.
But, frankly, even if the filmmaker hadn’t provided the oil for extremists to pour on the flames, these Salafis probably could have found another offensive video – or cartoon.
So how should U.S. leaders respond?
First, by recognizing that the problems of the Arab Winter were not caused by one political party. Republican and Democratic leaders alike supported the popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and will have to deal with the complex results.
Second, by working with Arab leaders, like those in Libya, who do want to root out violent groups in their midst. Libyans rejected Islamist parties in their first election, but their new institutions are painfully weak.
Third, by making clear to leaders like Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, whose party has Muslim Brotherhood roots, that he can’t have good relations with the West unless he prevents future attacks – and stands up against Salafi provocations. The administration must tell Morsi he can’t receive $1 billion in U.S. debt forgiveness, U.S. help in getting international loans, and the Western investment that Egypt desperately needs if he won’t head off violence against Western interests. Morsi will claim that as a “moderate” Muslim leader, he is squeezed by pressure on his right, but if he caves to that pressure he is no different from the Salafis. And at some point the Salafis will turn against him.
Fourth, U.S. leaders must make plain to Muslim leaders that the U.S. Constitution protects free speech, however offensive.
With more trouble brewing over the film, President Obama must demonstrate there is a price to be paid by those who perpetrate such violence, and by leaders who let it explode.