Forget Romney; what will Obama do about the Muslim Brotherhood?

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In the melee of a political campaign, where even the most trivial bit of news can be fodder for attack, it is often difficult to recognize the truly momentous events for what they are.

Thus far, for instance, news of the brutal death of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, has been heavily interpreted as a test of the two presidential candidates—one that, by a rare bipartisan consensus, Mitt Romney seems to have bungled badly so far.

Yet these events, like the Lehman Brothers collapse four years ago, have the potential to become watershed moments, and Romney's critique of the administration's statements is, ultimately, a silly distraction.

As my friend Thanassis Cambanis pointed out, "It's been more than 30 years since Americans were treated to the spectacle of their embassies in flames and news of their ambassador being killed."

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I wrote to Cambanis, a fellow with the Century Foundation and author of A Privilege to Die, about Hezbollah, to ask about the Obama administration's options for dealing with the attack, and how each might play not just with American voters, but in the Arab and Muslim world.

Cambanis is currently at work on follow-up book about Egyptian liberals in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak's downfall, and that project has given him a chance to examine, firsthand, the tactics of populist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. That organization, of course, sponsored the protests against the crudely blasphemous movie "Innocence of Muslims" in Cairo yesterday—demonstrations that were rowdy, but not violent. (Unlike the Libyan attack, which reportedly may have been a terrorist attack disguised as a riot.)

Cambanis wrote:

I would like to hope that this sort of attack won't be politicized. And this administration, with its record on drone strikes and its continuation of extra-judicial pursuit of alleged terrorists all across the globe, is likely to pursue a hard and tough response. I got the sense from today's remarks that Obama is not going to err too far in the direction of placating Islamic public opinion. He's been critical of the Florida pastor, and the government has punished servicemen who desecrated Korans; but in this case he has sounded an angry and strong note, in saying there is no justification for such violence.

For the president, there is some action he can take abroad and considerably more room to maneuver domestically in terms of the presentation. Abroad, he can make sure embassies are protected. He can also make sure that ambassadors will continue to engage even in hostile territories, rather than cocooning themselves in green zones. He can demand that allies condemn such acts. The Libyans did the right thing; the Egyptians have not. The contrast is striking. Egypt's president and government must be asked to condemn the raid on the Cairo embassy, and if they will not, they must be publicly criticized for their position. At home, Obama can do what he has done—act like the triumphalist, cold-killing counter-terrorist president. He's the guy who doesn't talk much, but kills bin Laden.

There will be criticisms that the U.S. didn't do enough to protect its diplomats, but these criticisms are bogus and reflect, usually, a desire to withdraw entirely from confusing places, or a cynical urge to politicize everything. American diplomats if anything are too isolated by embassy security. Chris Stevens was a great example of the kind of diplomat who didn't hide from his host nation.

I asked him how it had gotten to the point that anonymous anti-Muslim propagansists and crazy ministers in Florida could effectively hijack U.S. foreign policy, and whether the real problem wasn't also the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar organizations, for seizing on the slightest provocation.

Cambanis:

We have to lay blame where blame is deserved. This is different than Koran desecration at Gitmo, or by troops in Afghanistan; in that case, U.S. personnel responsible for government policy had to be held accountable.

In this case, by contrast, we have a lunatic who benefits from free speech in our society. Cynical self-serving parties abroad who capitalize on this have no excuse. So, specifically: the Muslim Brotherhood is run by responsible, educated, politically savvy grownups. The president of Egypt got his PhD in California. He understands—or should—the basic premise of the American system. He knows that the makers of this film, and its boosters in the racist religious extremist community, represent only themselves, and not government policy. Yet, he has chosen to first of all not condemn these attacks and second of all have his spokesman and ambassador call for the prosecution of the filmmaker. They know better, and are choosing for reasons, probably cynical and base-pandering, to let it go.

He explained why they saw such protests, even violent ones, as good domestic politics:

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood fear the challenge from their right, from the the Salafis. They have exhibited little confidence and integrity since Mubarak's fall in distancing and distinguishing themselves from extremist Salafis. The reaction to the embassy attack on Sept. 11 is only the most recent and most craven example of such pandering.  

In public opinion, there is little understanding of this difference we make between private free speech and government policy. There is also little understanding of independent civil society, since it does not exist in the region, nor of the freedom to criticize religion, nor even of the very concept of separation of church and state, which does not exist at all in Egypt and other Arab Muslim countries. So: that means that your average Egyptian is likely to see this insult to Islam as something that was "allowed" by the U.S. government, even though to us as Americans, we know the government cannot stop such things if it wanted to.

It's the job of the Egyptian government (or Libyan, or Pakistani) to explain to its public that the anti-Islam film doesn't express public policy. And it's up to them to condemn violence even if they feel the spark of the violence—in this case the film—merits great condemnation.

We see in Libya how it can be done. Libya's government does not condone the film, but they still condemn the response of extremists who took it out on the U.S. ambassador. In Egypt we see the opposite. The government is acting as if the film is U.S. policy, and so it shares the popular anger toward it.

I asked how Romney's reaction, which characterizes Obama's response to the attack as "an apology for American principles," might be understood abroad.

In much of the Arab world, and certainly in Egypt, there's a widespread belief that Americans are anti-Islam, Islamophobic, and racist. This feeling hasn't changed all that much from the time of George W Bush to Obama, despite Obama's much-ballyhooed optics.

I think it's appropriate for the U.S. to say the movie is racist and nasty and slanderous. And there will be voices on the right who will call that an apology for American values. Romney and the Republican Party have embraced a lot of people who habitually engage in a kind malicious racist caricature of Islam and all Muslims that is as noxious as the blood libel. That's a disturbing problem, and unfortunately much of the Islamic world doesn't realize that Islamophobia is a shrill position, but is not the U.S. government's.

So what does Obama do? Is he supposed to talk to the Egyptian Brotherhood or not?

Don't get me wrong: he needs to "engage" the Brotherhood, which means, "have relations" with it. In this case, the engagement should consist of a cold, angry, demand: that they immediately condemn the invasion of the embassy grounds, and that they act responsibly to cool anti-American sentiment—if they expect our financial aid, our military aid, and our indispensible support in getting the IMF and other international assistance vital to Egypt's economic survival.

Those who think these embassy attacks are a result of Obama's "weakness" and "apologizing" already have their minds made up. But there are reasonable people who will watch to see if Obama seems tough—like the guy who killed bin Laden and regularly assassinates people in foreign countries—or craven, like an apologist for Al Qaeda groupies. I don't know how this plays with the portion of the public whose minds are not already made up. I think it will hurt Obama if he doesn't criticize Egypt aggressively, and in public. And I think the damage could grow if people connect these breaches to America's broader directionless in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

That's the real problem, by the way—not the stuff Romney is bringing up.