Normally, an armed attack on an American diplomatic installation abroad and the death of four American officials in that attack would evoke unanimity in our domestic political structure. This time in Libya it has not.
But, wait, it’s election time, and anything that either party can do between now and the November elections to humiliate or undermine the opposition is fair game for the politicos.
When the matter of the anti-Muslim film produced in America and the general Arab and Muslim reaction to it hit the press, it was portrayed as exactly what it really was: a series of attacks on U.S. installations in the Middle East by a wide variety of angry Arab groupings unleashed by a nasty film in countries where such attacks would not have been permitted under the regimes in power prior to the Arab Spring.
A good starting point in trying to understand this issue comes with acknowledging what the Arabs/Muslims think of us. A Pew Research Center poll in July 2011 reported that “Muslim and Western publics continue to see relations between them as generally bad, with both sides holding negative stereotypes of the other. Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical and violent, while few say Muslims are tolerant or respectful of women. Meanwhile, Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy — as well as violent and fanatical.”
In short, Arabs/Muslims, because they are firsthand observers of more than a decade of U.S. foreign policy that has relied primarily on military intervention, have good reason to dislike Americans, if not for who we are, then certainly for what we have done to them.
Once American politicians had enough time to decide how to react to the attacks on our installations abroad, the political decision was apparently made by the Romney campaign to use it to attack the White House. And so they did. Where the White House had reacted initially by going after the filmmakers on the grounds of bad taste and bad ethics, the Romney campaign decided to castigate the White House for not dealing with the event as a terrorist attack.
To the amazement of some, the White House immediately reversed course and bought into the “terrorist” appellation. All this really did was to take off the table an examination of who really profited from the event and could therefore have had reason to precipitate it.
Much has been made of the premise that the attackers were affiliated with al-Qaida or that they were members of some other jihadi group wishing to attack U.S. interests. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant.
The only thing that is relevant is that the United States and its Western allies are now in a position in the Middle East where the local population can be provoked against us at will and on a moment’s notice. That means that when such a provocation exists, whether in the form of a film of highly dubious origin, a Salman Rushdie “Satanic Verses” or a Danish newspaper cartoon, we can logically expect retaliation.
Whether that retaliation comes in the form of peaceful demonstrations or violent attacks, we can and must be sure that we are prepared for the kind of focused violence that we experienced in Benghazi from jihadis who are not given to peaceful activities.
It is a simple fact that given the sort of cover provided by the recent demonstrations over the American film or any other activity deemed sacrilegious under the Quran, violent, fundamentalist jihadi groups will be prepared to take advantage of the situation with the most violent tactics they can think up. The simple fact of suddenly calling them “terrorists,” however that may resonate with a terrorist-punch-drunk America, will change nothing.
This situation will not change until we find a way to change our foreign policy for the area in a way that makes us far less concerned with pre-emptive war and far less threatening to Muslims in general. Only under those circumstances will truly radical Muslim jihadis lose what little support they have in Islam and moderate Muslims find the active support they will need to govern in their countries.
Absent that change, we can look forward to a period where the hostility felt by Muslims against America and the West will cause continuing problems of the kind we have just witnessed in Benghazi. And starting them up will be a simple matter for the jihadis or anyone else who believes they will profit from fanning hatred between Muslims and the West.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran, Langley, Va., and Washington, D.C., as chief of the counterterrorism staff and as executive assistant in the director’s office. He lives in Williston.