September 14, 2012

Obama and the Middle East

I have purposefully waited to post something about the current turmoil unfolding in the Middle East resulting in the attacks on U.S. embassies and the deaths of our citizens. I learned over many years that ‘first reports’ are (almost) always wrong and at best serve as a starting point for asking the right questions about what is really happening. This is never more the case than when you have to rely on ‘breaking news reports’, the blogosphere, and (worst of all) official U.S. government statements. 

The current crisis started in Cairo on Tuesday with the storming of our Embassy in Egypt; next came the attack on our consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi (and the deaths of our Ambassador and some of his staff); then the protests spread to Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq, and Iran. The State Department has issued warnings about potential unrest in other Gulf States. 

Over what? A stupid movie. And not even a whole movie...a 13 minute trailer for the movie posted to YouTube. I watched it. It’s stupid. Stupid dialogue, horrible acting, even worse cinematography. So why all the commotion? Because Muhammad is portrayed as a lecherous, self-serving, hypocritical opportunist. Have all the people storming embassies, killing Americans, burning flags, looting buildings and causing general mayhem seen even the YouTube video? Probably not. But that’s the nature of mobs - they act on rumor and raw emotion and they are easily exploited by others for ulterior motives. 

Understandably this diplomatic crisis has been fodder for the presidential campaigns, news media, and pundits of all stripes. For me, the incident serves as one more bit of evidence that: 
- our foreign policy is in shambles; 
- our President and his staff are either sincere but don’t understand the Middle East (or other any other country), are incompetent, or actually wish our country harm (one can make a solid argument for all three propositions); 
- if sequestration is allowed to continue we will not only see more of this nonsense but greater and more serious threats to our national security, the security of our friends, and the balance of power in key regions; and 
- political, radicalized, militant, fundamentalist Islam is a sorry system that will keep its adherents rooted culturally, technologically, educationally, and socially in the 11th Century. 

Across history, leaders in politics, the military, and business have known that strength begets respect and influence while weakness invites abuse. Americans do not view ‘strength’ as a means to dominate; rather, strength provides us the means to protect from abuse and to create an environment in which much good can be done for a great many people. Remember President Theodore Roosevelt’s pithy phrase “speak softly and carry a big stick...”? He knew that diplomatic words were only effective if they were backed by military power. Ronald Reagan’s take was, “Experience has taught us that preparedness deters aggression and that weakness invites it.” Over a half-century ago, the American statesman Dean Acheson said, “Weakness invites aggression. Now and in the future, strength is the precondition of peace” and "No people in history have ever survived, who thought they could protect their freedom by making themselves inoffensive to their enemies." 

Back in 2008, in the midst of the Presidential contest between Obama and McCain, Sen. Joseph Lieberman penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal titled “Democrats and Our Enemies” in which he bemoaned the drift of his party from one that understood the above truths to one that came to believe our enemies were so “because we had provoked them, because we threatened them, and because we failed to sit down and accord them the respect they deserved.” 

Most recently, Liz Cheney, shared similar (though more pointedly made) thoughts about this issue and the Obama Administration’s dangerous preference for apology and accommodation and its dangerous lack of appreciation for the importance of ‘standing strong‘ against the forces of disorder and oppression. She views the events of this week in the Middle East as “the logical outcome of three-and-a-half years of Obama foreign policy.” From her Op-Ed: 
     “The president wrapped up his 2009 world tour with a speech at the United Nations, where he explained: "No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed." He has worked hard these past three years to ensure that the U.S. is not "elevated" above others, and he has succeeded...In too many parts of the world, America is no longer viewed as a reliable ally or an enemy to be feared. Don't take my word for it. Ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even as his country faces an existential threat from Iran, he can't get a meeting with President Obama. Ask the Poles and Czechs, two allies we abandoned when we canceled missile-defense systems that the president feared would offend the Russians. Ask the Iranian people who took to the streets to fight for their freedom, only to find Mr. Obama standing silently with the mullahs...Nor do our adversaries any longer fear us. Ask the mobs in Cairo who attacked our embassy, or the Libyan mobs who killed our diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Ask the Iranians, who make unhindered daily progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon.” 

In short, when our policies and actions do not account for the nature of the people, cultures, and countries with whom we must deal we invariably find ourselves threatened by enemies, lacking friends and allies who don’t feel we can be trusted as a steady partner, and unable to influence events around the world that always have a way of circling around to bite us! 

With respect to the Middle East, ‘power’ is everything. Tribal affiliations (whether family, religious sect, or ethnic group) are determined by a constantly evolving pecking order among such entities. The ‘strongest tribe‘ carries the most influence and all the other tribes align themselves to accommodate the power structure even while working to alter it to suit their own interests. Along with the competition for power is the character of the prevailing culture and its guiding philosophy, something that is at the heart of the problem in the Middle East. 

A decade before 9/11, Bernard Lewis wrote The Roots of Muslim Rage (later expanded in the books What Went Wrong? (2003) and The Crisis of Islam (2004)) in which he described the historical basis for the anger we have seen emerge from the radical, fundamentalist Islamic world in the Middle East especially in the latter part of the 20th Century. From Lewis (highlights are mine): 
     “Ultimately, the struggle of the fundamentalists is against two enemies, secularism and modernism. The war against secularism is conscious and explicit, and there is by now a whole literature denouncing secularism as an evil neo-pagan force in the modern world and attributing it variously to the Jews, the West, and the United States. The war against modernity is for the most part neither conscious nor explicit, and is directed against the whole process of change that has taken place in the Islamic world in the past century or more and has transformed the political, economic, social, and even cultural structures of Muslim countries. Islamic fundamentalism has given an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses at the forces that have devalued their traditional values and loyalties and, in the final analysis, robbed them of their beliefs, their aspirations, their dignity, and to an increasing extent even their livelihood. 
     “There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equalled in other civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government of an ancient and civilized country—even the spokesman of a great spiritual and ethical religion—to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions. 
     “The instinct of the masses is not false in locating the ultimate source of these cataclysmic changes in the West and in attributing the disruption of their old way of life to the impact of Western domination, Western influence, or Western precept and example. And since the United States is the legitimate heir of European civilization and the recognized and unchallenged leader of the West, the United States has inherited the resulting grievances and become the focus for the pent-up hate and anger.” 

Robert Reilly, in his book The Closing of the Muslim Mind, explains the struggle between philosophies within Islam through the end of the 11th Century and the consequence of that struggle for both Muslims and the world in which they live today. The philosophy that won posited that the will of Allah trumped everything, that Man actually showed disrespect to Allah by attempting to understand the ‘why’s‘ of life. Borrowing from reviewers of Reilly’s book: 
     "The lack of liberty within Islam is a huge problem. Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind shows that a millennium ago Muslims debated whether minds should be free to explore the world—and freedom lost...” “The Islamic conception of God as pure will, unbound by reason and unknowable through the visible world, rendered any search for cause and effect in nature irrelevant to Muslim societies over centuries...” 

In other words, ‘reason’ was not just subordinated by submission to the will of Allah, it was fully replaced. To think about the nature and ‘why’ of the world is seen as the height of human arrogance...i.e. it is not Man’s place to question ‘why’ or to undertake an exploration of nature to understand its workings. Man is meant to simply accept whatever comes his way because what comes his way is ultimately the will of Allah. By contrast, the West thrives on exploration and critical inquiry. By default, it stands in direct opposition to the most central aspect of fundamentalist Islam. For the fundamentalist, the two cultures cannot be reconciled because to do so would be to sin against Allah in the most fundamental way. 

So what does all this mean with respect to the Obama Administration and our current troubles? Simply this: Obama’s approach to foreign affairs is the antithesis of Acheson’s warning about people trying to “[make] themselves inoffensive to their enemies." 

The very nature of the West, our philosophy of inquiry, the value we place on individual responsibility, our tolerance for different perspectives makes us intolerable to the radicalized, fundamentalist, Islamic community that we are seeing take root throughout the Middle East. Further, to the extent we reduce our strengths (especially military) even if well-intended under the misguided notion that our enemies will interpret it as a ‘good will gesture’ or ‘leading by example’, our weakened status will be seen as just that and our enemies will exploit it to full effect. 

A U.S. foreign policy based on apology, self-imposed demilitarization, accommodation, and weak responses to security challenges will invite the very thing advocates of such an approach say they are trying to prevent: greater threats to the U.S., destabilization of key regions, the loss of friends and allies, and the rise of cultural, political, and economic competitors who do not have our best interests at heart. 

A second Obama term would leave the U.S. weak and without friends or meaningful influence with the world around us a much more dangerous place for all. We simply cannot afford it...and neither can the Free World.


  1. Excellent, Dakota. Hope everyone takes time to read this as it helps to put things into perspective.