It was bad enough, two years ago, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates called fringe Florida pastor Terry Jones to ask him not to burn copies of the Koran, or last week, that chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey took his turn to call Jones to ask him to stop publicizing a YouTube video, The Innocence of Muslims. But then on Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney told the world that the violent protests in Cairo and Benghazi and elsewhere were a “response not to United States policy, and not obviously the administration or the American people,” but were “in response to a video, a film we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting.” Carney repeated the point for emphasis: “This is not a case of protests directed at the United States at large or at U.S. policy, but in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.”
Carney’s comments lie outside the range of plausible spin, even by Obama administration standards, and if his bosses believe them—as we fear they do—are simply delusional. But they are not without consequence. Nor are Gates’s and Dempsey’s phone calls. They all send the message to America’s enemies that if you kill our diplomats and lay siege to our embassies, the first move the American government will make is to denounce ... Americans. Our leaders apparently believe that the way to protect Americans from extremists and terrorists abroad is to tell other Americans to shut up.
What’s next? Where does it go from here? There are more than 300 million ways in which Americans expressing themselves might give offense to those who make it their business to be offended. Maybe it’s some other film, maybe it’s a book or even just a tossed-off phrase that our enemies might seize on to galvanize support for their causes. Is the White House going to put every American crank on speed-dial so it can tell them to shut up whenever a mob gathers outside a U.S. embassy or consulate?
It’s worth noting that virtually every description in our media of the movie that is supposed to have touched off the protests was attended by various aesthetic qualifiers—laughable, crude, amateurish—as if the mobs and their organizers were motivated by considerations of artistic craft. Let’s recall that similar murderous campaigns of terror were waged to protest Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, at the direction of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Would the editorial boards and newsrooms of our leading media debate the merits of White House officials warning prestige novelists to keep their mouths shut lest they anger extremists?
The Constitution was not written on behalf of poets and philosophers and film producers but to enshrine the rights of all citizens. Since 9/11 and our ensuing engagements in the Middle East, there have been appropriate occasions during which the American people have debated how the so-called clash of civilizations might be ameliorated. This is not one of those occasions.
To debate the right of an American to criticize religion does not indicate sophisticated sensitivity to the feelings of others but a willingness to turn tail and abandon our principles at the first sign of a fight. And to take seriously the notion that all those riots and attacks are about a video, not about American principles and power and policy, is silly.
What we have seen unfold in the Middle East over the last week is what distinguishes the region’s societies from our own. The protests in Cairo and Benghazi were not really about the film, the preacher, or Muslim sensitivities. They were an exercise in raw power politics, partly aimed at intramural rivals in the Arab political sphere, but mainly against the United States.
If the reaction of U.S. officials in the face of such an assault is to “condemn ... efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” (the initial response of the U.S. embassy in Cairo) and to try to silence individual citizens, there is good reason for the terrorists to believe that, with more acts of terror, they will also change American policies. The unpleasant fact is that the Obama administration has encouraged our adversaries to keep at it.
President Obama believed that to maintain “credibility with the Arab states,” as he once told a group of Jewish leaders, he had to put some daylight between ourselves and Israel. His administration sought desperately to “engage” Iran and Syria, two state sponsors of terror that have been killing Americans for decades. The same Joint Chiefs chairman who told journalists in London that he doesn’t want to be “complicit” in any Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities now advises an American citizen to stop alienating Muslim mobs.
A president who began his tenure by going to Cairo to say he considered it his “responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear” should not be surprised that the U.S. embassy in Cairo tweets similar apologetics while it is under siege.
It would be nice to have an American administration that stood up for America, for its people and its principles. It would also make the world far less dangerous for Americans—and for decent people of all faiths.