x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Neo-con legacy felt in US argument over Middle East protests

The recipe for disaster is extremist religious groups across the Middle East, with a penchant for exploiting angry and alienated youth, and American Islamophobes who deliberately provoke outrage.

The reaction among Americans and their friends in the Middle East has been a combination of profound sadness and sheer horror. On Tuesday, gunmen attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, while mobs have attacked US embassies in Cairo and elsewhere in recent days.

All is not well with the US-Arab relationship. After decades of policies resulting in tragedy for many Arabs, there is a deep political divide. There have been too many insults and too much pain inflicted in both directions. Americans remember the 1983 bombing of the embassy in Beirut, American hostages held in Lebanon and September 11. Arabs remember the toll of the long war on Iraq, the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, the dismantling of Palestine and US support for Israel's devastating assaults on Lebanon and Gaza.

What this tinderbox of raw emotion didn't need was a provocateur playing with matches. But that is precisely what happened. The recipe for disaster is extremist religious groups across the Middle East, with a penchant for exploiting angry and alienated youth, and American Islamophobes who deliberately provoke outrage.

Americans abroad knew exactly what the Cairo embassy staff were doing when they initially put out a statement denouncing the grotesque anti-Muslim video. They were attempting to save lives and save American honour by making it clear that the United States was outraged by those who abuse the country's freedom of expression.

The situation has escalated, but US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck exactly the right tone when they condemned the anti-US riots and the murderous attack in Benghazi, while demanding that the Libyan and Egyptian governments act swiftly and decisively to fulfil their obligations.

By contrast, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and some of his supporters leapt into the fray, attempting to use the tragedy to score political points. The White House message did not match Mr Romney's description of the "disgraceful way that the Obama administration's first response was ... to sympathise with those who waged the attacks", or that Mr Obama was "apologising for America's values".

The chairman of the Republican Party, Reince Priebus, echoed the charges, tweeting: "Obama sympathises with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic." A leading Republican Senator, James Inhofe from Oklahoma, also chimed in, attributing the attacks to "President Obama's failure to lead and his failed foreign policy of appeasement and apology".

What is clear is that this Republican assault was not a spur-of-the-moment gaffe. Rather, it was a coordinated attack that reflected a consistent mindset shaped by the neoconservative critique of Mr Obama's Middle East policy and diplomacy in general.

The world, as seen by the US neoconservatives, is one of black and white absolutes. Americans are inherently good. That goodness is measured not by what the US does, but what it is. That goodness is ordained to confront evil and destined to triumph. But victory is assured only if Americans remain resolute, because their enemies take advantage of any display of weakness. For that reason, neoconservatives maintain that the US will not negotiate with "evil" - hence diplomacy is eschewed in favour of military strength and "resolve".

This mindset defined policy during the first term of George W Bush and led to repeated foreign policy blunders and an erosion of American standing worldwide.

The first order of business for the Obama administration was to attempt to repair this damage - but the neoconservatives went apoplectic at Mr Obama's every step.

When the new president announced his intention to close Guantanamo, he was condemned as naive and "apologising" for America. The same antipathy greeted his efforts at diplomacy with Iran, to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, end the war in Iraq and engage in dialogue with Arabs and Muslims.

After Mr Obama's historic speech in Cairo, while the president was still abroad, I debated with a number of Republican leaders and was stunned by their refusal to allow him the space needed to improve the US image and relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds. The attack lines were the same as we heard from Mr Romney this week - Mr Obama appeases terrorists, he apologises for America and his weakness makes the US vulnerable to attack.

The reasoning behind this line is simple - neoconservatives do not believe in diplomacy or soft power. What they do believe in is overwhelming military power. To make this clear, Mr Romney on Wednesday stated his position: "We encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our constitution, because we recognise that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world."

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the narcissism. I'm not sure that the rest of the world knows that the US constitution is "the ultimate source of freedom" everywhere. And I worry that the neocons whose recklessness brought such tragedy in the last decade are making a comeback in the person of Mitt Romney.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa