A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
The explosion of anti-American unrest in the Islamic world will damage the Obama campaign in its drive for reelection for two reasons.
First, the turmoil undermines the administration’s claims for transformative success in producing a more peaceful and stable world.
And second, the lurid displays of violent fanaticism dramatically discredit the underlying world view promoted by Barack Obama since the earliest days of his candidacy—negating the notion that concession and conciliation toward hostile, backward societies can bring an end to stubborn conflicts.
The threat to the president’s prospects posed by the first factor has become so obvious that even The New York Timeshas begun to acknowledge it. In a front-page story on Sunday, the Journal of Record reported the administration “girding itself for an extended period of turmoil” while “a range of analysts say it presents questions about central tenets” of Obama’s Middle East policy.
Even without expert analysts, the public can recognize the way that the angry protests in more than two-dozen countries serve to shatter the core narrative of the Obama presidency. With bloody riots, teetering governments, and new threats of terrorism, it’s hard to argue that the new administration triumphed in cleaning up the mess left over by the purportedly odious George W. Bush. The fact that protesters now call Obama himself a terrorist and demand his death and dismemberment, while putting the torch to any visible U.S. targets (including fast-food restaurants in Lebanon and an American school in Tunisia), demonstrates that the president failed miserably in resetting the West’s relationship with the Islamic world.
His much-heralded 2009 Cairo speech promising a “New Beginning” now counts as an embarrassing bust, as does his outrageously overblown peace-in-our-time U.N. speech of last year (“The tide of war is receding … The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open.”). The president’s touching and eloquent annual greetings to the Iranian people for Nowruz (Zoroastrian New Year) have done nothing to bring the United States and the government in Tehran closer together, proving that not even a silver-tongued winner of the Nobel Peace Prize can talk the world’s more than one billion Muslims out of their deep-seated sense of grievance and resentment.
The situation conclusively counters a central argument of the Hope-and-Change campaign of 2008: that anti-American rage stemmed from the personality and policy blunders of George W. Bush and that an idealistic new president could significantly improve the nation’s standing around the world. Burning embassies and murdered ambassadors in the final months of the Obama first term hardly advance that optimistic narrative.
Recent developments support the perspective of Bush, Cheney, and the dreaded neocons, not the naive contentions of the Obama brigades. Islamic radicals really do hate us for what we are, not for what our leaders say or do. Even after the president banned enhanced interrogation techniques, repeatedly acknowledged mistakes by his predecessors, cut loose our longtime Egyptian ally (yes, Mubarak was officially an ally for three decades) to support “progressive” voices in the Arab Spring, and pressured the Israelis to make uncompensated concessions to the Palestinians, anti-Americanism looked as virulent as ever.
After nearly four years of the “sure-handed” foreign policy the Democrats celebrated so proudly at their convention, any attempt to blame the new round of violence, threats, and hysteria on George W. Bush would look at least as lame as the rightly derided efforts to suggest that the rage stemmed exclusively from a shoddily produced, 12-minute anti-Muslim video on YouTube.
And continued expressions of that self-destructive rage, along with the feeble attempts to explain it away, present a second profound problem for the president and his perspective: indicating that most Islamic societies remain so deeply dysfunctional that Obama’s conciliatory policies not only have failed so far but will continue to fail in the foreseeable future.
When furious multitudes respond to an Internet trailer for an unseen film produced by a Christian Arab ex-con in California by burning flags and chanting “Death to America,” even many fair-minded observers will conclude that such people count as incurably medieval and insane. The fact that the riots predictably peaked on Friday, the holy day of Muslim public prayer, casts further unflattering light on the very nature of Islamic religiosity. Americans know that Christians rarely surge out of Sunday church services screaming for blood and vengeance, and Jews will leave our congregations on Rosh Hashanah this week without brandishing rocks and torches to trash some unpopular target.
This matters to Barack Obama’s political future not because he counts as some sort of secret Muslim—the angry anti-Obama shouts and signs by the recent Islamic demonstrators ought to disabuse even the most stubbornly irrational right-wing conspiracists of that lame-brained supposition. The problem for the president involves the multi-polar, multicultural view of the world at the very heart of his foreign policy. He has called repeatedly for a less dominant, more modest and cooperative American role, emphasizing the idea of moral relativism and even moral equivalence in describing our relationship with societies that often demonize the U.S.
In his Cairo speech of June 2009, for instance, he rightly denounced Islamic extremism, but also declared that “tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims” and claimed that the “fear and anger” caused by Sept. 11 “led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.” In that context, he promised “concrete actions to change course,” proudly announcing that, “I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.” That particular pledge became unimportant to the Obama team only after they realized they couldn’t possibly fulfill it.
Most notably, the president in Cairo called for a “sustained effort” with the Islamic world “to listen to each other” and “to learn from each other.” In the wake of the latest violence, many Americans might reasonably ask what, exactly, we stand to learn from Islam as it is currently practiced—other than the horrible costs of religious fanaticism? In even the most enlightened and tolerant Islamic nation, Indonesia, demonstrators gathered last week not far from Barack Obama’s boyhood home to burn Israeli flags and chant “death to the Jews!”
Such images only serve to make the public less tolerant of the notion that the divisions between the West and Islamism amount to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, awaiting the healing power of enlightened leadership. We are far more likely to echo President Reagan’s view of the long struggle against the “Evil Empire”—a vision suggesting that we’re right and they’re wrong, and where the only possible outcome requires that we win, and they lose.
In short, the new eruption of fanaticism (a strain of thinking that never really abated or disappeared) in the Muslim world will discredit the split-the-difference, both-sides-are-flawed attitudes of the Obama administration and build support for the bright-lines, clear-distinctions approach of Mitt Romney and his longtime pal, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel.
Anyone who doesn’t see that the surge of anti-American extremism has raised new questions about the president’s emphasis on solving all problems through Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, or his odd faith in negotiations rather than clearly delineated red lines in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, is someone who hasn’t watched recent alarming news reports from across the Islamic world.
While Obama advocates and elements of the news media may want to distract attention by focusing on ill-timed or in artfully worded statements by Mitt Romney, the new turmoil in the Middle East strongly suggests that the president’s much-hyped policies are both failing in practice and wrong in principle.