In July, an amateurish, deliberately offensive video titled "Innocence of Muslims," was released on YouTube. It passed unnoticed among the videos of kids singing nursery rhymes and montages of pop songs, until some Egyptian media outlets translated it into Arabic and gave it publicity. Last week, protests against the video raged across the world. Four Americans serving abroad have died, now others fear for their lives. Some incensed protestors have been killed. Fragile governments are feeling the aftershocks.
The video was merely the latest in a series of incidents that have triggered widespread violence in Muslim-majority countries. Scholars have written about the deep-seated resentment of colonialism and global injustice that feed this rage. However, as Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland have pointed out, the protests are triggered by power-seeking politicians in these countries. Often, they have drawn attention to deliberative provocations that were unknown to the general population. At times, they have picked up on distorted or inaccurate media reports to publicize and condemn attacks on Islam. They have then looked away as so-called 'spontaneous' mobs attacked Christian or Western symbols.
Bergen and Rowland name Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan as practitioners of this passive-aggressive anti-Western policy. We could add Egypt's Mohamed Morsi to the list, considering his weak initial response--on his official Facebook page--to the storming of the US Embassy in Cairo.
Clearly, these leaders are protecting their right flanks. Demagogues from radical Islamist parties, disappointed at being shut out of power in a Morsi administration, have been using the pathetic and scurrilous video as an excuse to attack the President. In Pakistan, Imran Khan has used the incident to continue his campaign against the moderate and pro-US government of President Zardari, calling the official response unacceptably weak.
In the elections this summer, Morsi received only about 3 percent more of the vote than his opponent. He is fearful of the army as well as Islamist politicians on his right. But Morsi is not the only major leader looking over his right shoulder. In the United States, President Obama is facing a tough re-election battle and his Republican opponents have not hesitated to paint him as weak on national security. Even more worryingly for a candidate who many suspect of secretly professing the Muslim faith--not that it would disqualify him--Obama's critics have been accusing him of being weak on the threat from radical Islam.
Some of these opportunistic attacks on right-wing talk shows have been explicit. Others have been more subtle. The Chair of the Tea Party declared that Obama does not love the United States "like we do." Governor Romney slammed Obama for giving his first television interview to an Arabic-language station.
Who can blame politicians for guarding their right flanks? However, the stakes are much higher for Obama. When the President of the United States speaks, every word is taken apart in a highly-charged and often opportunistic atmosphere. In the echo chamber of social media and 24/7 news, his original intentions or context are lost in a matter of minutes. This is bad enough when it comes to shaping the debate in the United States on foreign policy in an election year. When foreign media sources, power-hungry politicians, and weak Presidents pick up on heated rhetoric from the White House, the consequences could be disastrous for US policy in the Middle East and for relations with Islamic countries in general. Put bluntly, it could get Americans killed.
Obama must therefore be concerned about every word that comes out of his Administration. His restraint may, however, hurt him among swing voters who pay attention to foreign policy primarily during crises in which Americans are directly attacked.