I was in the Middle East when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the Consulate in Benghazi were attacked by extremist mobs resulting in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. personnel. The reaction among Americans living abroad and many of our friends in the region was a combination of profound sadness and sheer horror.
If you are an American who travels to the Arab World, you know that all is not well with the U.S.-Arab relationship. After decades of policies that resulted in trauma and tragedy for many Arabs, there is a deep East-West political divide. There have been too many insults and too much pain -- inflicted both ways. We remember the bombing of the Embassy in Beirut, American hostages held in Lebanon, and the horrors of 9/11. Arabs remember the toll of the long war in Iraq, the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, the dismantling of Palestine, and U.S. support for Israel's devastating assaults on Lebanon and Gaza. We have become targets and scapegoats for each other.
What this tinderbox of raw emotion didn't need was a provocateur playing with matches. But that was precisely what happened. The recipe for disaster brought together some extremist religious groups across the Middle East with a penchant for exploiting angry and alienated youth looking for a target for their anger, and some American Islamophobes who were deliberately working to provoke outrage.
Americans abroad knew exactly what the Cairo Embassy staff were doing when they initially put out a statement denouncing the grotesque anti-Muslim video. They were attempting to save lives and save American honor by making it clear that while our nation celebrates the freedom of speech, we know enough to be outraged by those who abuse that freedom.
The situation escalated. The Cairo Embassy was breached and a terrorist group attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, murdering Ambassador Stevens. Americans watching from the Middle East believed that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton struck exactly the right tone when they forcefully condemned the anti-U.S. riots and the murderous attack and demanded that the Libyan and Egyptian governments act swiftly and decisively to fulfill their obligations.
But when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and some of his supporters leapt into the fray, attempting to use the tragedy to score political points, we were troubled and embarrassed. What we had heard from the White House did not match Romney's description of the "disgraceful way that the Obama Administration's first response was... to sympathize with those who waged the attacks," and his accusing the President of "apologizing for America's values." And when the Chairman of the Republican Party echoed these charges, tweeting "Obama sympathizes with the attackers," and a leading GOP Senator chimed in, attributing the attacks to "President Obama's failure to lead and his failed foreign policy of appeasement and apology," we became deeply concerned.
What is clear is that this Republican assault was not a spur of the moment off-hand verbal gaffe. Rather it was a coordinated attack that reflected a consistent mind-set shaped by the neo-conservative critique of President Obama's Middle East diplomacy and, I might add, diplomacy in general.
The world, as seen by the neocons, is one of black and white absolutes. We, Americans, are good, inherently good. And our goodness is measured not by what we do, but who we are. Our goodness is ordained to confront evil and is destined to triumph. But our victory is assured only if we remain resolute, because our enemies take advantage of any display of weakness. For that reason, neocons maintain that we do not negotiate with evil -- hence diplomacy is eschewed in favor of military strength and "resolve."
This mindset defined policy during the first term of George W. Bush and led to repeated debacles, foreign policy blunders, and a severe erosion of American standing world-wide.
The first order of business for the new Obama Administration was to attempt to repair this damage--but with every step he took in this direction, the neo-conservatives went apoplectic.
When the new president announced his intention to close Guantanamo and to end torture, he was condemned as naïve and "apologizing for America." Much the same greeted his efforts to try diplomacy with Iran, set markers aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, end the war in Iraq, and engage in a dialogue with the Arab and Muslim Worlds.
The resistance to the President's efforts had not come from abroad, but from determined opposition at home. In the aftermath of Obama's historic speech in Cairo, while the president was still abroad, I debated a number of GOP leaders and was stunned by their refusal to give him the space needed to improve our image in and our relationship with the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Their attack lines were the same as we heard from Romney this week -- "Obama appeases terrorists," "he apologizes for America," and his weakness and lack of resolve makes us vulnerable to attack.
The reasoning behind this line of attack is simple -- neo-conservatives do not believe in diplomacy or "soft power." What they do believe in is our inherent goodness, our resolve, and the use of overwhelming military power to secure our objectives. To make clear his embrace of this mindset, on Wednesday, Romney outlined the principles that would guide his foreign policy.
"We have confidence in our cause in America...We stand for the principles our Constitution protects. We encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our Constitution, because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world...and [we demonstrate] resolve in our military might."
I was still overseas when I first read these words, and didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the infantile narcissism they reflected. I'm not sure that the rest of the world knows that our Constitution is "the ultimate source of freedom" everywhere. And I worry that the neocons whose recklessness brought such tragedy in the last decade are making a comeback in the person of Mitt Romney.
If this week demonstrated anything, it is that we live in a dangerous and volatile world that requires a steady hand and thoughtful leadership to get us out of the mess we're in. What we do not need is more of the very same ideological clap-trap that got us into this mess in the first place.