By Paul R. Pillar: Reactions to the deadly incident in Benghazi and the less lethal protest at the U.S. embassy in Cairo have been part of a swirl of grief, anger, bigotry, diplomacy, politics and much else. We should keep a few essentials in mind.
What took place was not a single type of phenomenon, executed by a single type of perpetrator. We are seeing not only spontaneous sentiment of masses, and not only conspiratorial behavior by small nefarious groups. It is instead a mixture. The still-inconclusive reporting from Benghazi suggests that an armed group may have taken advantage of what would otherwise have been an unarmed though still ugly protest.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 12, 2012. (State Department photo)
As for the mass, mostly spontaneous, portion of what has occurred, there is enough history of this sort of outburst involving Western interests in that part of the world to conclude that this is a phenomenon that for all practical purposes is here to stay. We [the United States] will be unable to eliminate it; we need to deal with it and try to mitigate its damaging effects.
The history prior to the most recent episode includes popular reactions to perceived offenses ranging from cartoons in European periodicals to destruction of Korans by American forces in Afghanistan. However much we may understandably believe that “a fifth of humanity surely … can withstand the insults of a half-wit,” telling that to ourselves — or others — does nothing to calm things down or to preclude future occurrences.
It also is inevitable there will be more actions or statements by Westerners that will trigger such outbursts. Some triggers will be accidental, such as the destruction of the Korans in Afghanistan. Others will involve the thoughtless comments of televangelists or two-bit pastors, or even — as in the current case — instigators who expect a violent response but go ahead and do what they are going to do anyway.
In light of these inevitabilities, the main policy objective should be to dissociate the United States, and the U.S. government and Americans generally, as much as possible from what is thoughtless and offensive, while reiterating the importance of freedom of speech despite the unpleasant products that exercise of that freedom sometimes entails.
In the current case, as viewing of the video in question ought to make clear, policy-makers need have no concern that they are criticizing something that has artistic or any other value. The statement that the U.S. embassy issued after the video had begun stirring resentment — but before the protest at the embassy or the attack in Benghazi — may not have been perfect but it exemplified the kind of message that needs to be conveyed.
To suggest that the message in such situations ought to be substantially different or to be replaced by mere pugnaciousness is dumb. To suggest that the embassy’s statement was not issued before the incidents at the embassy and the Benghazi consulate but instead was “the Obama administration’s first response” to the incidents is dishonest.
The role that any organized violent groups had in the Benghazi event is a reminder of two things. One is the nature of what was left in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, how far Libyan politics and society have to go to reach anything approaching stability, and how insufficient was the thought given to this when the West intervened in the Libyan insurrection.
Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment observes that “the weak legitimacy and resources of the country’s provisional government” have resulted in a governmental response to Salafi violence that “has blended toleration and active collaboration.”
The situation also is a reminder of how even small terrorist groups feed off larger resentments. Radical ideologies and conspiratorial plots may be part of any act of terrorism, but widespread anger and anti-Americanism provides fuel that determines to a large extent what conspirators can do. General sentiments toward the United States matter.
The most general lesson to take away from this week’s incidents is that they are a manifestation of a context of suspicion that colors how almost anything the United States does in the Muslim world is interpreted. That context helps to explain why some things the United States does that are in no way anti-Muslim are nonetheless viewed as if they are.
The context also exacerbates the negative repercussions of some U.S. postures and initiatives, from use of military force to maintenance of some alliances, making the repercussions worse than one might otherwise expect.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)