Just months ago, Americans were voicing cautious optimism as communications technology helped Middle Easterners depose dictators and usher in the Arab Spring. Now, the same technology is helping to spread outrage over an anti-Islamic video made in the United States.
The video did not originate with the U.S. government, whose officials no doubt wish it had never been made. The filmmakers, who reportedly had valid political and religious complaints about the treatment of Christians in Islamic nations, may not have calculated accurately the potential ramifications of proclaiming their ideas in such an inflammatory way. Or, maybe they intended exactly this. Protests, whether peaceful or violent, are much easier to generate than they are to control.
The militant Islamic response probably did not originate with the governments of Libya, Yemen or Egypt, whose officials now confronting the American eagle eye also no doubt wish the week had gone differently. Yet someone maybe offended Muslims, maybe a terrorist group took advantage of the opportunity to strike out at U.S. diplomatic installations, the handiest target for their ire, and in turn, many outraged Americans, including several candidates nearly purporting to speak for the U.S., demanded a swift and decisive response against foreign governments, also the handiest target.
The logical difference between the initial provocation and subsequent reaction is that a video, however offensive (and this one certainly was), is free speech, while killing an ambassador and three other Americans crosses the line into criminal action. Modern governments should not be in the business of telling their constituents what to think and say, but in the interest of sane and stable international relations they must maintain the safety of diplomats within their borders.
The challenge facing U.S. decisionmakers is emblematic of the post-9/11 world, in which military action is a very awkward tool to counter the range of behavior weve come to label terrorism. U.S.-style freedom of expression is spreading through populations that have not yet developed the political maturity to understand the full range of its consequences.
Libyan leaders, knowing their nation has very little credit in Washington, spoke out quickly, but ineffectively, against the violence. The fledgling Egyptian government said one thing to the United States and quite another to supporters of the Islamic Brotherhood; it has little power to crack down. Elsewhere, governments are reacting awkwardly as the protests have proliferated, because they have their own reasons to fear the mobs.
Contrary to campaign rhetoric, which also will not help to calm this storm, Middle Eastern governments cannot simultaneously pacify their own people and appease Washington, and the United States cannot invade or isolate every nation whose government allows such things to happen, because no government, including our own, can entirely prevent them.
With that in mind, responding in a way that discourages recurrences while encouraging constructive dialogue grows ever more important. Decisive action is essential, but once the immediate threat is over, strong threats must be supplemented by strong policy disincentives for foreign governments to allow such behavior. The world is changing, and the United States of America must provide leadership to guide that growth.