Once again, Islamic dogmatism has turned September 11 into a day of infamy. The week that followed September 11, 2012, saw dozens killed and hundreds injured; it saw the sovereignty of US and UK embassies across the Middle East arbitrarily violated, (indeed the German embassy in Khartoum was struck for simply being adjacent to its UK counterpart,) and the exposure of President Obama’s middle-eastern policy as an abject failure. What can we learn from this debacle? How did this begin?
The Innocence of Muslims, a risibly bad US film critical of Islam, is touted as the cause. Setting aside the logical dead-end of blaming a film rather than the choices of those who responded to it – even cursory investigation shows otherwise. Much like the Danish cartoons crisis, the film had been online for months in obscurity (uploaded June 1, specifically,) only becoming an issue at the instigation of a religious leader. The salafist Sheikh Khalid Abdullah screened the film himself “in keeping with the Salafists’ methodology for tampering with the Egyptian government.”
With violent protests at the US Embassy in Cairo on September 11, what began as a Salafist political manipulation soon expanded. By the 12th, the world woke to the galling news that US Ambassador Chris Stevens – and four others – were murdered in Benghazi. On September 13, the US Embassy in Sanaa was stormed; the 14th saw outrages including a raid on the American school in Tunis and an assault on a US-led peacekeeping force in the Sinai desert. On September 15 the Taliban had struck Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
…Middle Eastern politics is a tinder-box…
Here we see what was already well-known – Middle Eastern politics is a tinder-box, in which religious fanaticism and eleventh-century attitudes toward free speech stand prominently. In such an atmosphere, the internecine jockeying of religious factions can easily go beyond national borders and snowball, building a momentum all of its own. As with Salman Rushdie’s persecution, many doubtless never even saw the offending material – and the western response today has been just as myopic as it was then.
Consider, for instance, that on September 16 Susan Rice, American Ambassador to the UN, described Benghazi as “a spontaneous – not a premeditated – response” hijacked by extremists. On the contrary, every detail suggests this was a well-prepared, well-equipped and (since Stevens was never usually in Benghazi,) well-informed terrorist operation. Note that “in 15 minutes the gunmen gained access to the compound… [and] 45 minutes into the battle U.S. security personnel… attempted unsuccessfully to fight their way into the building…” That is, the attackers were numerous, fast and well-armed enough to be able to storm the compound, then hold off a counter-attack before escaping. Hardly the hallmarks of have-a-go spontaneity.
…‘outreach’ and ‘open hands’ dissuade entrenched policies or hostile worldviews…
Rice’s insistence to the contrary perfectly underscores the wishful thinking that has come to dominate US policy towards the Middle East. Declaring ‘A New Beginning’ – as President Obama famously did in Cairo in 2009 – does not make it so. Neither, for that matter, did ‘outreach’ and ‘open hands’ dissuade entrenched policies or hostile worldviews – as Obama’s naive engagement with Iran amply illustrated. Nor could an undignified scramble for Iraq’s exits make it a peaceful country, just as the White House’s prevaricating over Hosni Mubarak inspired little confidence or respect. If there was a new beginning here, it was one of embarrassing ineptitude.
What this latest crisis has told us goes beyond lessons in Middle Eastern politicking. Rather, it is the latest, most prominent symbol of a President out of his depth and out of ideas.