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The Arab Spring Flowers

Yesterday our Embassy in Egypt was stormed by protesters. And in Libya our Ambassador and three other staff were murdered. You can read the bare details at the Washington Post. Needless to say this is an outrage, and the U.S. deserves redress and justice from the Libya and Egyptian governments who are obligated to provide basic security for our missions. Previous to this I believe only five U.S. Ambassadors have been murdered. Our diplomatic missions have survived most of the wars we’ve been involved in, even if occasionally they’ve been housed uncomfortably and fed badly.

But I thought I would share some impressions. Although many of the staff have changed over, I was impressed with our diplomatic mission in Cairo when I visited five years ago. And I think they have gotten a slightly bum rap. The initial press release that criticized attempts by American citizens to “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” was issued before the attack on our Embassy, not as a response to it. In Egypt, this amateur film that nobody in the United States was anticipating was a real topic of controversy.

Many have argued with me that diplomats shouldn’t condemn the free speech of Americans. But of course diplomatic missions aren’t in other countries to defend and promote the Bill of Rights, they are there to promote and defend the interests of the United States, to encourage peace, and to protect our citizens traveling, doing business, and living in those nations. I actually think the statement issued is just fine. It underlies the point that the United States respects all religions (we do, mostly). And that free speech is a “universal right.” The tone is conciliatory and the substance is uncompromising. As a friend pointed out, if people burned an effigy of the Queen in the United States, you can bet our diplomats in London would issue a conciliatory statement.

The real issue here is that in the past two years we have helped or celebrated the overthrow of regimes in Egypt and Libya with a lot of hot air about an “Arab Spring” that would usher out the old authoritarians and bring stabilizing democracy to the Middle East. So far this Arab Spring has meant the empowerment of Islamists, and regimes that are unwilling or unable to even provide basic security to our diplomatic missions. Who could have predicted that democracy in the Middle East would be problematic for us?

Unfortunately we are unlikely to get the debate on this that we deserve. The Obama administration is certainly not going to issue any regrets, and the Romney campaign is the least likely place to find criticism of the Obama administration for being too active in this region.

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