Since U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s murder in Libya on Sept. 11, the debate about how the U.S. should respond to the Middle East’s turmoil has barely progressed beyond name-calling. Senator John McCain and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, for example, cast the riots and Stevens’s death as a product of U.S. weakness and failed leadership in the region. They say a tougher, more assertive U.S. is the answer.
Yet if we’ve learned anything since Islamist radicals started trying to oust the U.S. from the Middle East with attacks, it’s the folly of using “toughness” as a metric for U.S. policy in the region.
In that light, here are four ways to respond to the latest spasm of anti-American riots, which certainly won’t be the last.
First, don’t let talk of a clash of values become self-fulfilling. It’s a fact that many Muslims don’t believe that free speech trumps religious dictates against blasphemy. The U.S. can’t do much about this. It certainly shouldn’t bend its own values in response or get involved in censoring YouTube posts. But the U.S. also shouldn’t count on persuading conservative Muslims to change their sensitivities anytime soon. In the meantime, they have a right to express their disgust at a meritless and hateful video, including by peaceful protest—just as the U.S. government has the right to distance itself from trash produced by a convicted fraudster.
Second, the U.S. needs to be realistic in dealing with the Arab Spring’s newly elected Islamist governments. The decision by Egypt and Tunisia to call for protests on the video is not evidence that they want to sever relations with the U.S., or that the U.S. has been naive in engaging with them. These governments compete for power with ultraconservatives and feel that not to take the lead in protesting well-publicized insults to the Prophet would be political suicide.
Third, the U.S. needs to produce more Chris Stevenses and do a better job of protecting them. Ambassador Stevens was unusual not just in his Arabic proficiency but also in his willingness to move outside the bubble of security that insulates most U.S. diplomatic personnel in the region.
Fourth, in its use of power, the U.S. needs to make a distinction among its responses to terrorists, Islamist governments, and ordinary conservative Muslims, all of whom have played a role in turmoil over the videos and demand separate responses.
The right response in Libya is more low-key U.S. engagement, not less, working with the Libyan government to track down terrorists, disarm and retrain militias, build up an effective police force, and encourage Libya’s integration into the international economy. That makes for a terrible campaign sound bite. But it’s what the U.S. needs to do.