Day: September 14, 2012

A really bad day

The Muslim world has had a busy Friday trashing U.S. embassies and killing Muslims.  The latest death toll I’ve seen is seven, but who knows.

The day was a losing proposition all around.  The United States suffered serious damage not only to its embassies but to its international standing.  Muslims lost people and respect in the West, where no doubt anti-Muslim extremists will take action against mosques and argue that the day proves that Islam is not a peaceful religion.  Al Qaeda got to display its flag amid at least the appearance of popular support.

The Arab awakening took an ugly turn that will reinforce skepticism about it worldwide.  Syrians might be the biggest losers in the long term:  those who are on the fence about intervention there will not want to risk creating yet another opportunity for extremism.  Not that it is better to ignore the homicidal maniac who runs that country, but it is certainly easier than doing anything about him.  My Twitter feed is full of Arab commentary about the stupidity of protesting a dumb movie when Bashar al Asad is killing thousands, but that entirely justified sentiment won’t change the import of a truly ugly day.

Ironically but not surprisingly, the one place where dignity prevailed was Libya, where it all started.  The president of Libya’s parliament, in essence the chief of state, laid a wreath at the American embassy in honor of the Americans killed in Benghazi.  Libyans know perfectly well that the Americans and NATO saved them from the worst depredations of Muammar Qaddafi.  Except for the Qaddafi supporters, they are overwhelmingly grateful and friendly.  That was amply apparent at the Atlantic Council’s event on Libya yesterday, when the Libyan ambassador (and every other Libyan who spoke) made affection for slain Ambassador Chris Stevens amply evident.

I am afraid the lesson of the day is one we already know:  transitions to democracy take time and resources.  Our effort to get off cheap and easy in Libya is not working out well.  We need to be thinking about how we can help Tripoli gain control of the armed groups on Libyan territory and help the Libyans achieve a measure of reconciliation with those who supported the Qaddafi regime.  We also need to work with the Libyans to bring the murderers to justice.

Egypt’s President Morsi has finally come around to recognizing that his hesitancy about blocking the violence was a big mistake.  I have some sympathy with those who would use massive U.S. assistance to Egypt–debt forgiveness, military aid and development assistance totalling more than $3 billion–as leverage.  There is no way the American public is going to support continuing it unless Cairo starts singing a friendlier tune and reining in extremism, not only in Cairo but also in Sinai.  Tunisia is next in line for tough love, though the government’s behavior there has generally been better than in Egypt.

Yemen is a more complicated case.  We get lots of support and freedom of action in our war against Al Qaeda in Yemen.  No one will want to put that at risk.  At the same time, we need to be paying a whole lot more attention to Yemen’s deeper problems:  poor governance, underdevelopment, and water shortages.  They are what make the country a haven for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Mitt Romney and his acolytes may want to pretend that all these problems can be solved if only the American president is shows resolve and therefore the United States is respected.  But as Joe Cirincione pointed out in a tweet, the two worst Muslim terrorist attacks on the United States occurred under Presidents Reagan and Bush.  The Romneyites presumably don’t think they lacked resolve, which is something best reserved for top priority conflicts with other states.  And those rare moments when you think you know where Osama bin Laden is hiding.

I can well understand Americans who want to turn their backs on the Muslim world and walk away.  But that will not work.  It will come back to haunt us, as terrorism, oil supply disruption, massive emigration, mass atrocity or in some other expensive and unmanageable form.   Muslims, in particular Arabs, are going through a gigantic political transformation, one whose echoes will reverberate for decades.  We need to try to help them through the cataclysm to a better place, for them and for us.

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