Mehmet Ali writes from Cairo: Another night of riots, fireworks and rabid anti-Americanism across the Muslim world.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has called for a million person march after Friday prayers. The message is clear: Down with America and down with everything the US represents. So far there have been no deaths among US diplomatic and other staff. However, the mood is ugly and the anger is not set to abate for quite some time. President Barack Obama said in an interview that Egypt was not an ally and not an enemy. He had evidently forgotten that the US and Egypt have been close allies for about two decades. This mistake was later corrected. Although it was pretty odd for a US president to make it in the first place. (Imagine if Mitt Romney had said that.)
Anyway, apparently the protests in Egypt were sparked by an anti-Islamic film put out in California two months ago. Similar protests occurred in Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Oman, Iran, Bangladesh and beyond.
The initial response of the US State Department was to apologise for the film. But it produced the impression that the US government was actually siding with the protesters. That reading so infuriated many Americans that the government then had to change tack and condemn the violence and the murder of the US ambassador and three others in Benghazi.
The US mission in Benghazi was guarded by Libyans, assisted by a few Americans. They were in no position to counter the concerted rocket and small arms attack. In fact, no one was prepared for such an incident in the first place. Imagine, the Americans thought of themselves as liberators of Libya and didn’t contemplate being on the receiving end of violence.
Given the fact that the protests across the Muslim world were supposedly coordinated to coincide with anniversary of 9/11 analysts think that the film was used as a pretext for the violence. The level of the anger reveals the deep seated opposition to US policy in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, wondered how such a thing as the murder of the US ambassador could have happened. One presumes that this was rhetorical. Anyone with any knowledge of the Islamic world knows why it took place.
There is no telling how the protests will develop or what their consequences will be. What is clear is that US policy under President Obama has been a failure. On assuming office, he held out the olive branch to Muslims and sought to mollify their anger. He claimed that America was a friend and not a foe. Whereas the Bush Administration had used hard power, Obama switched to soft power. The billions of dollars spent on the war in Afghanistan and the lives lost there only added more resentment.
Washington has to rethink radically its policy towards the Muslim world. What are its interests there? Promoting human rights and democracy are American goals worldwide. However, societies in the Islamic world find these objectives very unattractive. This is very difficult for the US government to accept. However it will have to face this reality sooner or later.
America’s only ally in the Middle East is Israel. But President Obama has declined to meet the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he comes to New York later this month.
The mayhem in the Islamic world is now entering the presidential race. Romney takes the line that the Obama Administration is not defending US interests abroad. He would increase defence spending whereas Obama would reduce it. The Republicans accuse the Democrats of apologising for American power. They take the view that if a nation does this, it will be perceived as weak and invite attacks. Republicans would like a robust defence of US interests. Its enemies should be warned that the US will respond to attacks by attacking the attackers.
Torrid times ahead.