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“Where do They come from, those whom we so much dread, As on our dearest location falls the chill Of their crooked wing….” –W.H. Auden, “Crisis,” (1940)
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the murder of four Americans there has become a huge issue. There are many stories and rumors that are still being debated and more information is coming out. What I’m going to try to do here is to analyze the enduring themes raised by these tragic events.
Why Do They Hate Us? There is a debate over the causes of terrorism and anti-Americanism in the world. One possible view is that the principal problem is that of genuine conflict. The adversaries hold certain ideological ideas—say, revolutionary Islamism—to which American society and policies are antithetical. The collision (as with Communism, Nazism, and aggressive Japanese militarism in earlier decades) is inevitable. The United States is inconveniencing the totalitarians both because of what it does (policies) and because of what it represents (freedom, democracy, capitalism).
The other view currently dominates many Western academic “experts,” politicians, mass media, and even governments. That concept is that the hatred is our own fault. We have done things in the past—which require apologies—and are doing things in the present that makes people angry at America who otherwise would be friendly.
An exception is made for a “tiny minority of extremists,” mainly a code word for al-Qaida, but the more sophisticated argument is that such people would have no following if America handled things properly.
Thus, in this case, if American facilities are attacked in Cairo and Benghazi it must have been something America did wrong, to wit, an insulting video made by an immigrant from the Middle East about Islam.
Diagnosing the problem tells one what the cure is: sensitivity; respect; tightening rules against such insults; bowing and scraping; refusing to identify radicals and terrorists with Islam in any way; giving large amounts of money; helping the Muslim Brotherhood so it will be grateful later; telling the NASA director to make up stuff about Muslim contributions to space travel, etc.
That is the path the Obama Administration, with major support from the intellectual-cultural establishment, has followed.
Why Do Some of Us Hate Ourselves?
The answer to this question follows from the first answer. If “we” are responsible for the hatred and conflict, then we have done evil and must repent. We are the problem or, as one much-feted American intellectual put it, the United States is the cancer of the world.
In the Benghazi case, however, it is hard to come up with more than a video, according to the dominant view. After all, didn’t the United States “liberate” Libya from a terrible dictator? Of course, the problem is that from the standpoint of the radicals, the United States merely became Libya’s new master, blocking the revolutionary Islamist, Sharia state they wanted, producing a “puppet” (who cares if it was elected?) government.
America is thus the prime enemy not because it did something evil but because it did something which the U.S. government regarded as good. If they hate us in Libya for sinful policies, then President Barack Obama, not the Egyptian-born video producer, is the chief sinner.
Is America a Bully or a Leader? As noted above, the establishment view today is that America has been a bully in the past, acting unilaterally and not respecting the views of others. Obama has said this directly when speaking to foreign—including Middle Eastern—audiences.
But how does one stop being a bully? By showing that one isn’t tough, doesn’t protect one’s interests fiercely. Thus, in the Benghazi case, the U.S. government didn’t send the ambassador to Benghazi with Americans to guard him, nor did the consulate have Americans to provide security. To do so would be to show disrespect for the Libyans, to act in a way that might be perceived of as imperialistic.
Similarly, the president would not call in an airstrike against the attackers or send an armed rescue team to the consulate because to do so would have signaled an arrogance and aggressiveness, putting Americans first and not acting as a citizen of the world.
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One of my most fun professional memories was when I walked endlessly, circling round and round and round that hall in Algeria in November 1988 with a burly, no-nonsense, and brilliant newspaper correspondent named Youssef Ibrahim, who was then working for the New York Times.
Friendly, funny, sarcastic, and with absolutely no illusions or romanticism about the absurdities of Arab politics and the idiocies of Arab political ideology, Ibrahim’s only shortcoming is that there are not one thousand more exactly like him. If he was the kind of person leading Arab countries and people they would be far more prosperous, peaceful, happier and democratic.
But, alas, the Ibrahims are the rarity, men given too little honor in their own old societies and far too little in the West. The genuine moderates accept no excuses but comprehend precisely why the West has succeeded and the Middle East has not. Often seen as sell-outs, they are the most noble and courageous of people, far more concerned about their own people’s welfare than are the dictators, demagogues, and bloodthirsty academics.
These thoughts are prompted by an article he once wrote, presented below. I include the text because I want you to read every word. It is all completely sensible. Many will find it encouraging. It makes me want to cry.
First, because it all could have been written 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, indeed it is pretty much what he told me as we circled endlessly around the convention center way out on an isolated Algerian beach (there’s Arafat, surrounded by his coterie; there’s that moronic American Jewish Peace Now guy who is explaining to the PLO gunmen thugs why they really really want to make peace with Israel but just don’t know it; here come the sycophantic journalists…)
And it was published in 2006 and in six years and a half years there has been no advance on one single word of its text. Of course, the spread of revolutionary Islamism has revived the unwillingness to listen to Ibrahim, though the fate of Syria–the one Arab country he said still took the conflict seriously–should give pause to radical regimes who think this gambit solves all of their problems.
Second, because nobody in the Arab world listens to Ibrahim or to brilliant scholars like Fouad Ajami, which is their tragedy for preferring the demagogues.
Third, because it was published—of course—not in an Arabic publication (who would dare?) but in an American Jewish one, a group that includes all too many who think the fault is on their own side and don’t get what Youssef is saying.
Fourth, because if I were to have written these truths I would have been denounced with a hundred different insults.
Fifth, because if anything things are worse today than back then. (Can you imagine this essay of his being presented and discussed in a university course on the Middle East?)
And sixth because it’s now 2012 and we still have to be saying things like this! No, it’s worse: in 2012 the Middle East is starting a whole new round of the old madness. The Islamists tell the masses that the only reason their predecessors didn’t win total victory is that they failed to hit their head against the stone wall long and hard enough!
Here’s his open letter:
To my Arab brothers: The War with Israel Is Over — and they won. Now let’s finally move forward.
By Youssef M. Ibrahim
Jewish World Review, July 12, 2006
Dear Palestinian Arab brethren:
The war with Israel is over.
You have lost. Surrender and negotiate to secure a future for your children.
We, your Arab brothers, may say until we are blue in the face that we stand by you, but the wise among you and most of us know that we are moving on, away from the tired old idea of the Palestinian Arab cause and the “eternal struggle” with Israel.
Dear friends, you and your leaders have wasted three generations trying to fight for Palestine, but the truth is the Palestine you could have had in 1948 is much bigger than the one you could have had in 1967, which in turn is much bigger than what you may have to settle for now or in another 10 years. Struggle means less land and more misery and utter loneliness.
At the moment, brothers, you would be lucky to secure a semblance of a state in that Gaza Strip into which you have all crowded, and a small part of the West Bank of the Jordan. It isn’t going to get better. Time is running out even for this much land, so here are some facts, figures, and sound advice, friends.
You hold keys, which you drag out for television interviews, to houses that do not exist or are inhabited by Israelis who have no intention of leaving Jaffa, Haifa, Tel Aviv, or West Jerusalem.
You shoot old guns at modern Israeli tanks and American-made fighter jets, doing virtually no harm to Israel while bringing the wrath of its mighty army down upon you.
You fire ridiculously inept Kassam rockets that cause little destruction and delude yourselves into thinking this is a war of liberation. Your government, your social institutions, your schools, and your economy are all in ruins.
Your young people are growing up illiterate, ill, and bent on rites of death and suicide, while you, in effect, are living on the kindness of foreigners, including America and the United Nations.
Every day your officials must beg for your daily bread, dependent on relief trucks that carry food and medicine into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, while your criminal Muslim fundamentalist Hamas government continues to fan the flames of a war it can neither fight nor hope to win.
In other words, brothers, you are down, out, and alone in a burnt-out landscape that is shrinking by the day.
What kind of struggle is this? Is it worth waging at all? More important, what kind of miserable future does it portend for your children, the fourth or fifth generation of the Arab world’s have-nots?
We, your Arab brothers, have moved on.
Those of us who have oil money are busy accumulating wealth and building housing, luxury developments, state-of-the-art universities and schools, and new highways and byways. Those of us who share borders with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, have signed a peace treaty with it and are not going to war for you any time soon.
Those of us who are far away, in places like North Africa and Iraq, frankly could not care less about what happens to you.
Only Syria continues to feed your fantasies that someday it will join you in liberating Palestine , even though a huge chunk of its territory, the entire Golan Heights, was taken by Israel in 1967 and annexed. The Syrians, my friends, will gladly fight down to the last Palestinian Arab.
Before you got stuck with this Hamas crowd, another cheating, conniving, leader of yours, Yasser Arafat, sold you a rotten bill of goods — more pain, greater corruption, and millions stolen by his relatives — while your children played in the sewers of Gaza .
The war is over. Why not let a new future begin?
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We…know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who’ve been displaced. That’s why we are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend on.
There are lots of people who would like their children to grow up to be suicide bombers or prefer piety to prosperity. Even though many don’t think that way, they might be persuaded that radicalism is the best route to better lives. And finally, when people and rulers see no real way to achieve prosperity, both the governments and the masses will turn to demagoguery, scapegoating, and foreign adventures.
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This article’s purpose is to give a full analysis on the foreign policy aspects of the third debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Remember that the idea that someone “won” the debate in terms of an outside observer’s standpoint or even based on a poll is misleading. The only important thing is whether either candidate swayed additional voters to his side.
Since I’m writing this to provide a detailed assessment, I’m not going to try to be short. So for your convenience let me begin by briefly explaining how Romney is so handicapped in dealing with foreign policy:
–He either cannot (or has decided for strategic reasons not to) name the enemy, revolutionary Islamism.
–He either cannot (or has decided for strategic reasons not to) discuss in sharp terms how Obama has objectively helped this enemy become stronger while weakening America’s allies.
–It is not politically profitable for him to explain that America faces a long struggle, since this would make voters unhappy and prefer Obama’s promise that he has brought peace.
–It is not politically profitable for him to explain that democracy and economic development are not panaceas for the Middle East.
Given either the terms of the larger debate or the strategic decisions of the Romney campaign (based on an arguably realistic assessment of American voters, or at least the additional votes he needs to win), Romney starts out at a huge disadvantage. He did not overcome this handicap in the presidential debate.
Now to the debate itself.
Romney began with an assessment of the “Arab Spring” as having gone wrong. It brought hope “that there would be a change towards more moderation” but instead there was the bloody Syrian civil war, the terror attack on American personnel in Libya, the takeover of northern Mali by “al-Qaida type individuals”; and a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, alongside Iran’s continuing drive for nuclear weapons. What is to be done? Romney continued:
“But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is — it’s certainly not on the run.”
The threat is “a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries” that “presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America, long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”
But what is that group? Al-Qaida? And this is a genuine problem that Romney has faced, either because a presidential candidate cannot name the enemy more explicitly or because he’s making a mistake in choosing that strategy. For is the problem al-Qaida—a tiny terrorist organization—or massive revolutionary Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood?
Obama prefers the focus to be on al-Qaida. He ignored all the points Romney had made and focused on what he could claim as accomplishments: that there had been no new September 11; that the war in Iraq was ended; that “al-Qaida’s core leadership has been decimated;” that the U.S. forces are pulling out of Afghanistan; and that he has rebuilt alliances and united friends against threats.
On Libya he merely repeated his previous statement that once he received news of the killings he directed that Americans there be kept safe, the matter be investigated, and that those responsible be punished. He added that he had provided leadership in overthrowing the Muammar Qadhafi dictatorship without putting in troops and at low cost, making Libyans like Americans.
This certainly would seem to voters to be a record of success, presented in part by not mentioning any of the current problems to which Romney referred. Implicitly, Obama was speaking as if an end of history had been achieved in the region: as if Libya would not be the source of further trouble; the Taliban might take over in Afghanistan; Iran might not gain influence over Iraq; al-Qaida was not still very much alive; and crises in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere continued.
For electoral reasons, Romney does not want to tell the American people that there is a long, hard struggle ahead. So he puts forth a relatively low-cost, pain-free strategy of getting “the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own.” Instead of another Iraq or Afghanistan—that is, American military intervention—U.S. strategy should be to go after extremist leaders while helping the “Muslim world.”
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Are supposed negotiations with Iran the “October Surprise” intended to win the election for President Barack Obama, an Iranian trick for buying time, or both? The answer is both. It’s an incredibly transparent ploy though with the cooperation of the mass media such a gimmick might well have some effect.
Here’s the scenario we are supposed to believe: Obama’s sanctions (the tough Obama) have severely damaged Iran and so Tehran is looking for a way out. At the same time, though, Obama’s flexibility in dealing with possible enemies wins them over (the empathetic Obama). Thus, Obama’s greatness as a statesman might solve this problem of Iran’s nuclear drive short of war.
Let’s note some of the evidence that this ploy meets the needs of both sides in the conflict. For Obama, it is a potential electoral gain at the last minute in a hard fought election in which his foreign policy has come under severe questioning. For the Iranian regime the development buys even more time as it continues to go full-steam ahead with its nuclear drive.
If the Iranians are really sophisticated about American politics they understand the advantages for themselves:
–There will be pressure against new sanctions for the next six months or more since it could be said in the United States that these would damage a promising initiative.
–It might help reelect Obama who is significantly softer on Iran. If the Iranians believe that a President Mitt Romney might launch a U.S. attack or support an Israel one—I don’t believe this but probably they do—that makes helping Obama win a top priority.
–Since the talks wouldn’t be until next year, Iran has to give up nothing to make the initiative. Note, too, that during the last five years Iran has repeatedly proposed different diplomatic formulae both in terms of meetings and potential compromises only to retract them or make clear that Tehran’s terms are going to be unacceptable.
According to the Times the agreement is “a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term.” In other words, nothing has happened for four years and suddenly we have a deal. Sound suspicious?
All this involves then is an Iranian offer to start talks, talks which could break down in a few hours or go on for years without result. Of course, the first Iranian demand will be for easing the sanctions.
Note, too, that the Obama Administration officially denied the report—hey, we’re not playing politics with foreign policy!—and then leaked that it was true to its friends in the media.
The new situation can also be used to paint Republican candidate Mitt Romney as a potential war-monger. In the words of the New York Times:
It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Mr. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat….
Moreover, the prospect of one-on-one negotiations could put Mr. Romney in an awkward spot, since he has opposed allowing Iran to enrich uranium to any level — a concession that experts say will probably figure in any deal on the nuclear program.
One key issue is the difference between the U.S. and Israeli positions. The Obama Administration says that Iran can have all the fixings of a bomb as long as it doesn’t build one or that Tehran must be stopped short of having everything in place. The problem with the first option, of course, is that Iran could secretly or quickly assemble bombs (including those that might be delivered by terrorists); the second option is tougher to enforce, less likely to be negotiated, and more likely to bring military action.
As the Times rightly points out, for Romney, “The danger of opposing such a diplomatic initiative is that it could make him look as if he is willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives.”
The story continues:
It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven’t had such discussions,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with Iran as under secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
So in other words, the U.S. government is under pressure to talk as long as Iran wants, even if Iran is moving ahead on its nuclear program at every moment during the long, drawn-out, and inconclusive chatting.
There is, of course, no solution. Sanctions won’t stop Iran from building nuclear weapons and long-range missiles able to deliver them onto targets. Diplomacy won’t work, except possibly for the fig leaf of having Iran own all the pieces for those weapons and simply promising not to assemble them. War is unattractive for the United States and, despite all you’ve heard, Israel, too. Does a scenario of the next U.S. president launching a major, long-term military operation against Iran seem likely–especially after the near- or non-completion of controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan– whether or not you’d like to see that happen?
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Perhaps you remember an incredibly sensational story from back in October 2011 that after a brief period in the headlines disappeared completely. The U.S. government arrested an Iranian-American citizen in Texas and charged him with being an agent of the Iranian government who planned at Tehran’s behest to hire a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a fiery terrorist attack in Washington D.C.
It would have been another September 11, albeit on a far smaller scale. Knowing about such an operation should have been a real game-changer for U.S. Middle East policy.
Now that man, Manssor Arbabsiar, arrested in September 2011, has pled guilty to these charges in a Manhattan court. The trial is scheduled for January.
The case is so important because the U.S. government was officially claiming that the Iranian regime planned an act of war on American soil. Talking to journalists, U.S. officials insisted that the very top leaders in Iran must have authorized the attack, though they admitted they didn’t have hard proof.
Nevertheless, the highest officials in the United States threatened retaliation. President Obama said: “Even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity.” Notably, however, the Obama Administration policy attitude toward Tehran, already involved in sanctions of course, was not altered further by this new revelation.
The government says it has impressive evidence, based on the fact that the Mexican “drug lord” Arbabsiar was propositioning with was a secret U.S. agent. It includes tapes of the accused speaking with intelligence officials from the Quds Force inside Iran and his withdrawing $100,000 as down payment for the hit.
We do know that Iran has sponsored terror attacks against Americans in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Yet an assassination in the heart of Washington D.C., with passers-by and restaurant patrons being blown up, would have marked a considerable escalation. Some argued that the plot was too strange to believe: Iranian intelligence delegating a used car salesman to contract with Mexican drug lords.
It is understandable that some are incredulous about this story. I have no idea what the truth is, but note that the U.S. government says it has strong evidence and that the Obama Administration—not known for its boldness in challenging America’s enemies—really stuck its neck out in this case. They must really believe that the plot was real.
What does all of this tell us?
This operation should once again remind American leaders that the Tehran regime is not just a problem because of the nuclear weapons’ project but because it is a determined foe of the United States on every issue. A major priority for U.S. policy should be then to battle Tehran’s influence everywhere, notably in Lebanon, Syria, and Bahrain. (This has already been done in Iraq, though Iran’s influence there is now on the rise and that of the United States diminishing.) Those supposedly friendly governments helping Iran—with Turkey and Venezuela at the top of that list—should not be treated as allies.
And if the attack was an independent initiative, albeit one that the Iranian regime didn’t actively oppose, it shows that once Iran has nuclear weapons there might be other such “rogue” operations. While I don’t support a military attack on Iran, such a factor should be taken into account in making such a decision in future.
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