One of the more bizarre criticisms directed at President Barack Obama in the wake of last week’s attacks in Egypt and Libya was the accusation that he has positioned the United States on the wrong side of the revolutionary movements in the Middle East.
In Moscow, a parliamentary ally of President Vladimir Putin taunted on Twitter, “Under Qaddafi they didn’t kill diplomats.” In a rambling post on Facebook, Sarah Palin touched on the same theme, asking, “How’s that Arab Spring working out for us now?”
The intimation is that the Obama administration has recklessly sided with groups trying to throw off decades of corrupt authoritarian rule. The assaults in Cairo, Benghazi and beyond, according to this line of thinking, are the predictable blowback from dumping allies who kept extremists in check. Aside from the fact that those allies actually tended to cultivate extremism, exactly the opposite is true.
President Obama repeatedly has demonstrated a calculated willingness to allow mullahs and dictators to slaughter their own people and threaten the existence of their neighbors. If anything, it’s the lack of U.S. support for change, not an excess of it, that has made the Middle East a much more dangerous place for moderate reformers who cherish political freedom and religious tolerance while creating a leadership vacuum that empowers fanatics.
Start with Iran. The president ran for office pledging to meet unconditionally with the Islamic Republic’s leaders.
“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them,” candidate Obama said in a Democratic debate in 2007, “is ridiculous.” True to form, the president didn’t allow a popular revolt against an oppressive regime to close his open hand. When the Iranian government began shooting protesters in the streets, then arresting and torturing them by the thousands in 2009, an administration official told the Wall Street Journal, “This is a debate in Iran among Iranians. It is not about us.”
When one side shouts slogans and the other side shoots bullets, most people wouldn’t call it a debate.
Then there’s Libya. British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had to cajole the leader of the free world to criticize Moammar Gadhafi, then to take action against him. But in trying to make a virtue of “leading from behind,” Obama made it easier for extremist groups like the one responsible for the attack on the consulate in Benghazi to get a foothold in Libya.
When protests began in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” That was almost as big a howler as her reference to dictator Bashar Assad, two months into the Syrian uprising, as a reformer. Now with the death toll in Syria climbing above 20,000, a new French president is once again trying to cajole the United States into hurling something more than adverbs at Assad’s murderous regime.
Is it any wonder that some citizens of Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Tunisia and Yemen might be confused about whether the United States really cares about democracy or accountable government, or that religious extremists can tap into this uncertainty to whip up an anti-American frenzy? No, what happened last week in Egypt and Libya wasn’t blowback. And even President Obama agrees it wasn’t justified by some cornball movie about Islam.
Anti-American zealots are always looking for an excuse to go on a rampage in the Middle East. American leaders shouldn’t make their job any easier by making it harder for the region’s residents to discern which side the United States is on.