In a brazen attempt to wrestle masculinity away from President Obama, Mitt Romney is using the deaths of foreign service officers to spit in the eye of the very mission they gave their lives to save. Way to go, Mitt. The way I see it, you need to go on your own apology tour now, to the home of every Foreign Service family who lost a loved one. But I doubt you'd be welcome just now if you did.
I don't know much about the Libyan consulate in Benghazi, but I've been inside the American Embassy in Cairo. It's a big, beautiful building in the heart of the Garden City area, a neighborhood of narrow streets and graceful Embassy buildings dating from the Napoleonic period to the present day. I was there on several occasions when I taught Political Science at the American University in Cairo. I spent holidays with Embassy families, worshipped alongside them at St. Andrews Church with my husband and daughter. We were one big American family, exchanging household hints for dealing with unpredictable Egyptian gas heaters, trading intelligence about which restaurants in Maadi served a true "American breakfast."
It was a long time ago, but it all comes back; the briefings given the American community about how to avoid being kidnapped ("vary your route to work") and how to check the undercarriage of your car for bombs ("a mirror on a broom handle can provide a handy method to look underneath a car without getting your suit dirty"). Occasionally, we would all be notified by telephone tree that a particularly angry set of sermons was about to be preached at Friday prayers, so best to stay inside on the weekend. And this was in 1992, a relatively safer period! I can only imagine what the security briefings are like these days!
My daughter went to a private school where her playmates often came from Embassy families. There were long dinners where the kids would go off and play together, while the grown ups lingered over the good coffee that Embassy families could buy at the military PX. That's where diplomacy and foreign service became much more than concepts to me, as I listened to career foreign service folks talk passionately about their little-known work doing the slow and glamour-free things that changed the lives of people most Americans would never meet.
You see, here is what Mitt really does not understand: foreign policy is not about chest-thumping, boasting, and playing Clint Eastwood. Foreign policy is about the extension of power, and not all power is measured in guns or ratcheted up by bravado. Power, in the political science meaning of the term, is the ability to affect outcomes. Diplomacy has been called "soft power," but it is power, to be sure. And which is the better way to get what we want; going to war using American blood and treasure, or through persuasion by means large and small, public and secret?
And how well do you think Muslims will take to Mitt Romney's get-tough act, screaming "Get off my lawn" to one-seventh of the world's population? Let's play the game, "are you smarter than a Muslim fifth grader"?
Here's what is apparently news to Mitt: people who are born and raised in a completely different culture will have their own set of values, thank you very much. We can't blame Mitt for not understanding this very well; his church sends missionaries to foreign countries with the express intention of imposing their culture on others by converting them to Mormonism. And the Mormons are very, very proud that their church is American, founded in America, and based on the idea that Jesus came to North America to found a new promised land. Did Mitt actually convert any Frenchmen to become members of the Latter Day Saints, where they would have to come to the U.S.A. for their most sacred rites?
The Egyptian people have been raising their children for literally centuries to believe that any insult to the Prophet Mohammed is an insult to Almighty God. Their culture has never been pluralistic. Their Coptic Christians have their own separate family courts for marriages, divorces, and the like, because Egypt's Muslims don't expect these people to live under Sharia. And the Copts don't take very kindly to anybody who insults Jesus or the Virgin Mary, either.
The idea of freedom of speech to insult religion is just plain beyond their cultural ability to understand, for all but the most educated. I did my doctoral dissertation on the separation of church and state in the United States, and if I could not explain this concept to bright university students, I wish Mitt good luck going door to door in the Arab street. Here's what used to happen in my classroom:
ME: "Unlike the laws you have in Egypt that punish people for blasphemy, anyone in the United States may insult any or all religions or religious figures if they wish to do so. Their speech is protected by our First Amendment to the Constitution."
STUDENTS: "Wait a minute. You're joking, right?"
ME: "No, Americans can say whatever they want. They can't burn down a church, but they can certainly say bad things about that church."
STUDENTS: "Oh, I see! They can say bad things about religions if those religions are not true!"
ME: "No, they can say bad things about any religion. Or all religions."
STUDENTS: "I can see why your government would not protect untrue religions, but they should protect the true religion. Government is supposed to help the people, and protecting religion helps the people. Right?"
Now, to be fair, some of my students understood the concept of freedom of speech, but they tended to be the children of diplomats who had spent some of their lives overseas, learning about other people's cultures. But most of my Egyptian freshmen could not wrap their minds around the idea that government literally was prevented from punishing people for the crime of blasphemy by its own Constitution.
That's the context Mitt needs to understand before he goes around condemning the good people in the American Embassy in Cairo for trying to explain why an American video blaspheming against the prophet Mohammed comes from a private citizen, and does not represent the government of the United States. Because to the majority in the Arab street, governments have the power, and the duty, to protect religion against attack. So if someone in America is attacking Islam, and the government does not stop that person, then the government of the United States must really approve of this anti-Muslim video. After all, if the government was against it, they would stop it! A good diplomat knows the culture she's serving, and the staff at the Egyptian Embassy were doing their very best to serve their government when they released a statement that Mitt now calls "an apology."
As we contemplate the families of fallen foreign service officers receiving the phone calls they have always dreaded, and hoped they would never receive, it is Mitt Romney who sounds foolish. Our Foreign Service is dedicated, not to apologizing for America, but to explaining America. Leave the Foreign Service and Diplomatic Corps alone, Mister Romney. Let them bury their dead in peace.
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