Getting It Wrong

Getting It Wrong

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.


In politics in general and in diplomacy especially there are rules of conduct which usually set the norm for behavior.  Over the past 48 hours these rules have been broken everywhere you turn. This behavior has made some U.S. officials and politicians look extremely foolish and inept.

The events in Cairo for starters demonstrated immaturity and inexperience by U.S. Foreign Service officers that was inexplicable and inexcusable. If the State Department review ultimately confirms what has been widely reported so far, some heads ought to roll both in Egypt and in Washington. It appears that normal clearances and approvals were not obtained or granted yet FSO’s made policy statements in the name of the Department and even the White House concerning America’s reaction to the rioting and attempted take-over of the U.S. embassy. Local officers reportedly acted against instructions. They interpreted the U.S. response both to the rioting itself as well as the reported “cause” and then persisted in tweeting about it as actions continued to explode around them. As a result it took Secretary Clinton and the President almost two days to reset the record, precisely when the proper response might have recast the U.S. in a much stronger and definitive position from the start. (See below) Now the Egyptian debt forgiveness offer makes no sense, free speech has been undermined, rioting in the name of religion appears almost to have been justified; to say nothing of any effort by the Obama Administration to try to move the new Mohamad Morsi Government to more moderate positions.

The second rule is that when there is a foreign policy crisis or event, the party out of the White House almost always does not muddy the waters with partisan attacks while the incident(s) are still bursting out. There is a tradition of criticism after matters have begun to settle, but most of the Republican leaders refrained from any attacks on the President’s response and statements concerning the events in both Egypt and Libya; except for Mitt Romney.  Without engaging in discussing his substantive remarks, Romney violated the rule and astounded even many of his most loyal supporters including Peggy Noonan.

As for President Obama he suffered from being trapped by a policy that might not really be working. His Administration’s overtures to the Muslims in the Middle East were an important and innovative shift in U.S. foreign policy. Today, it seems as if the President has permitted himself to be ensnared by his own desires to create a more tolerant Islam while the Muslim world in many of the countries from the Arab Spring appears headed in a more radical and fundamentalist direction.

Theo Van Gogh paid with his life for his art/pornographic movie in which he criticized Islamic religious practices vis-à-vis women. The Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, ran twelve cartoons which depicted the prophet Muhammad and criticized Islam. This was followed by four months of demonstrations, bombings, and burnings against Danish embassies, while editors were afraid for their lives. We may find a film repugnant, but that does not mean the film makers do not have the right to make them. The public does not need to watch the movie. Free speech is not limited to what someone likes. The President took too long to stop and hold accountable radical forces who are evidently willing to attack the West and its values. The rioting in Cairo was an affront to the President and the Egyptian Government’s paltry response unacceptable.

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