Middle East Turmoil: Solidarity is Messy

Two years ago, a number of Swatties braved the February cold, dressed in white and marched across campus in a display of “solidarity” for the Egyptian uprising against then-President-cum-Dictator Hosni Mubarak. These students, like many Americans, hoped freedom, not radical Islam, was sweeping the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the latest chapter hasn’t been so celebratory. From Egypt to Libya to Tunisia to Lebanon, American property and dignity was torched. In Benghazi, U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three diplomatic staff were murdered in what looks to have been a planned terrorist attack. Multiple embassies saw the American flag torn down and desecrated, replaced with the same black flag of Salafism that al-Qaeda has been known to fly.

The State Department is currently backpedaling from its original comments in the wake of the September 11, 2012 rioting, statements which proved to be wishful thinking. As it turns out, the uprisings weren’t random. No, some stupid YouTube clip wasn’t the catalyst. No, that diabolical preacher from Florida wasn’t egging them on.

On September 13, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assured the morning talk shows that uprisings were just a “one-off” by isolated attackers, as if the embassy ambushes were the handiwork of a few adolescent kids playing with matches. A full week later, Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged the Pakistani Taliban was in fact involved. The gross discrepancy earned little more than a collective shrug from the mainstream press.

In a landmark case back in 1989, the Supreme Court confirmed that flag-burning is indeed a display of free speech. Many Americans were outraged. Yet we seem eerily oblivious as Arab protesters — whose revolutions Washington supported — scorch that same flag. Where’s the solidarity now? Why not band together for Constitutional freedoms, which, like it or not, protect films the President calls “disgusting?”

“Solidarity” conjures up a vision of the masses taking to the streets for one cause or another. It’s true that such displays described the Arab Spring for a short while. But revolutions are the easy part. Establishing legal foundations and norms is when statecraft gets tricky.

I wonder if an element of our blindsightedness — in Swarthmore and D.C. alike — is our appeal to “democracy” when we ought to be talking about good, small-r republican governance. By this I mean a sense of civil unity, a trust in elections, a legal system that addresses grievances, a respect for pluralism and communities shaped by human capital. Handing out ballots is relatively simple, while forging the social and economic frameworks for dignified self-rule is the Achilles heel of politics. Knee-jerk calls for democracy can end in groups like the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting democratic means for undemocratic ends. We’ve witnessed this phenomenon with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

President Obama is publicly exasperated with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, as the Iranian quandary escalates, the Middle East revs up hostilities and Egypt falters as a reliable ally. These are tough issues, to be sure, and they require bold American leadership. Instead, President Obama opted to guest-star on “The View,” making a public appearance with Whoopi Goldberg rather than Prime Minister Netanyahu or Egypt’s President Morsi. This is an example of Disney politics — an immature hope that a flick of the presidential wand can make difficult problems vanish, at least until after election day.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, President Obama proclaimed, “We do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue.” That’s fine when we’re talking about various local priorities between states, but “toleration” and “respect” are rendered dangerously hollow when when our leaders are not willing to unequivocally defend American free speech. Washington’s elites were quick to agree with the Muslim world that some obscure movie was “blasphemous.” The agreement that violence and murder are unacceptable wrongs was, well, muted.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney faced harsh criticism this summer when he attributed Israel’s prosperity to her institutions and “culture,” insinuating that some societies possess better civic checks and balances than others. Politically correct pundits went berserk, yet the past two week’s events reinforce Romney’s basic point. The Middle East is deeply unstable and in need of committed, associated citizens who keep their leaders honest. Order must precede liberty, and then liberty will reinforce order.

A world where Internet drivel becomes more offensive than terrorist attacks is a world of Orwellian doublespeak. This is what happens when the postmodern politician believes all nations, regimes, words and faiths are interchangeable. Our red, white and blue flag is easily swapped for one that is bleak and black.

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