Editorial Board

Be Smart, Not Just Tough, in the Middle East

A week has passed since U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Libya, but the debate about how the U.S. should respond to the Middle East’s turmoil has barely progressed beyond name-calling. Something better is needed, because this problem isn’t going away.

Riots sparked by the made-in-the-USA, anti-Islam video that ostensibly helped to provoke his death have continued, underlining that U.S. positions in the region can become hostage at any time to some crackpot’s irreverent portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.

A suicide attack this week in Afghanistan killed at least 12 more people, nine of them foreigners. The Taliban-linked perpetrators claimed the attack was in revenge for the video. That followed a day of riots outside U.S. diplomatic missions in Indonesia and Pakistan. In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a rare public appearance before protesters to call for a sustained movement in defense of the Prophet. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also got in on the act.

Wrong Answers

Needless to say, most of these responses are opportunistic. The video, called “Innocence of the Muslims,” was no more than a useful tool to pursue existing agendas, as was probably the case at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, where Stevens died.

So how to respond? Well, you could follow the lead of Senator John McCain and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, for example, who cast the riots and Stevens’ death as a product of U.S. weakness and failed leadership in the Middle East. They say a tougher, more assertive U.S. is the answer. They also say the U.S. is too weak on Iran and Syria.

Yet if we have learned anything since Islamist radicals started trying, as far back as 1979, to oust the U.S. from the Middle East with attacks, it is the folly of using “toughness” as the chief criterion for evaluating U.S. policy in the region. That perspective often seems to produce the wrong answers.

What’s needed is a more clear-eyed approach that emphasizes effectiveness over toughness. In that light, we have four recommendations to make about how to respond to this latest spasm of anti-American riots, which sadly won’t be the last.

First, don’t let talk of a clash of values become self-fulfilling. It is 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 what 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.

The U.S. government, equally, has the right to distance itself vigorously from trash, produced by a convicted fraudster, that it had no hand in producing or distributing -- and without being accused of apologizing for U.S. values.

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. The U.S. should go on working with these inherently awkward partners while demanding that their police offer more determined protection to U.S. diplomatic missions and other assets.

Smart Security

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. The challenge the U.S. faces -- one that we hope proposed hearings on the Libya attacks take up -- is in safeguarding its personnel without walling them off from the world.

Fourth, in its use of power, the U.S. needs to make a clear 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.

It should come as no surprise that in this most recent bout of unrest, the most violent incident took place in a country where the government is not Islamist, but secular and pro-American. A study this year found a direct correlation between the level of secular-Islamist competition in Muslim countries and levels of anti-Americanism. The researchers explain that, in competing for legitimacy, the two sides bid up their rhetoric against the U.S.

At first glance, Libya doesn’t fit that pattern -- a Gallup Poll in August showed it was by far the most pro-American country in the Middle East, other than Israel. But that’s a new and direct result of the U.S. military intervention to topple Colonel Muammar Qaddafi last year. Having lost elections to secularists in July, Libya’s radical Islamists appear to have “bid up” the anti-American card by killing Ambassador Stevens.

The right response in Libya now 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 less of a campaign trail sound bite than insisting that America stand tall and get tough against its enemies. But it’s what the U.S. needs to do.