Posts Tagged ‘Benghazi’

U.S. presidential primaries: Donald Trump as incendiary wildcard, and Hillary Clinton as hyper-advised calculating robot

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as dream candidates—for the other side

Sometimes it seems that the Republicans and the Democrats have found the perfect candidate — for the other party!

Donald Trump is a dream candidate for the Republican presidential primaries, and Hillary Clinton is a dream candidate for the Democratic primaries — each for the other party.

Donald Trump will alienate so many voters in the Republican party and those leaning Republican that it will be hard for the Republican nominee (even Jeb Bush) to win them back. He makes the Republican Party look like the stridently anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant party of Donald Trump.  Good luck with the Hispanic vote in the general elections! Even Jeb Bush, whose wife is of Mexican origin and who speaks fluent Spanish, will have a hard time overcoming the identification in voters’ minds of the Republicans as the anti-immigrant party.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is a dream candidate for the Republicans, for several reasons.

First, she has incredibly high unfavorability ratings among the general electorate, who believe she cannot be trusted. The ongoing saga about her private e-mail server as Secretary of State, and other matters the House Special Committee is looking into, particluarly her role in the Banghazi affair, are certain to keep the issue of her candor and trustworthiness before voters’ eyes.

Second, by so dominating the Democratic primaries through building a massive machine and warchest, seeming to have locked up the support of major Democratic donors, she has sucked the air out of the room ncessary for other potential candidates to launch viable campaigns.

She seems most likely to win the nomination, and most likely to lose the general election — if the Republicans can put up a reasonable candidate and can unite their party after the primaries, or in the not unlikely event that she faces criminal chargs over her handling of classified information, or some other scandal, perhaps related to the Clinton foundation, drags her down.

Hillary and Machine Politics, 2015 style

Hillary personifies the new machine politics of the Democrats in 2015. She is the head of the machine, infinitely calculating, never saying anything that the machine of messaging and narratives and policy positions does not tell her to say. Even her new spontaneity must be viewed as a decision by her machine of countless advisers and pre-tested focus groups that she needs to inject spontaneity and candor into her campaign. There is an inherent contradiction here.


Michael Gerson, “Hillary Clinton’s Nixonian mindset is on full display,” Washington Post, August 17, 2015 (8:04 PM).

Jan Fleischhauer, “Warum die Amis Hillary Clinton nicht mögen; Hillary Clinton will die erste US-Präsidentin werden. Doch jeder Satz von ihr klingt, als ob ein Beraterteam ihn vorher getestet hätte. Die meisten Bürger wollen aber im Weißen Haus einen Menschen aus Fleisch und Blut – keinen Sprechautomaten,” Der Spiegel, 11. August 2015 (17:49 Uhr).

It is hard to see in Hillary the leader of the nation after her performance during the Benghazi affair. When four Americans including the ambassador to Libya were killed in Benghazi on September 11-12, 2012, she as Secretary of State did not go forth to reassure the country, but rather sent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to the Sunday morning talk shows to present a highly ambiguous and misleading account of what had happened.  

Rice downplayed the link to al Qaeda and related terrorist groups. Candor would have contradicted Barack Obama’s presidential campaign narrative that Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda had been defeated, and that terrorism was under control. Obama, and Clinton, knew at the time this was not the case, which is why the CIA had a “black” operation in Benghazi whose known tasks included monitoring the activities of Ansar al-Sharia and other terrorist groups in the region–whose names were scrubbed from Susan Rice’s talking points.

The Citizens United decision and electoral politics

Isn’t there a new generation of leaders ready to take on the challenges of the incredibly perilous times in which we live?

If money did not rule politics in the U.S. as it has since the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United in 2010, wouldn’t we have a better chance of seeing and hearing these candidates, who might also be able to launch viable campaigns?

Like the Supreme Court decisions in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) case upholding slavery, and Lochner v. New York (1905) which held labor legislation limiting working hours to 10 hours per day and 60 hours per week unconstitutional as violative of the “liberty of contract” implicit in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010) ruling has upended the Constitution, giving the wealthy and super-wealthy the power to use their money as “free speech” to drown out the free speech of others and to subvert the electoral system established by the Constitution.

The only remedy for this situation is a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United, or its unlikely reversal by the Supreme Court itself. Neither will happen in time to affect the 2016 race, if ever.

The Trenchant Observer

Benghazi reactions: Commentary, opinion and analysis

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
–Abraham Lincoln, (attributed)

Commentary and Opinion on Benghazi

Jonah Goldberg (op-ed), “Benghazi’s smoking guns; There’s an arsenal worth, from testimony at congressional hearings to the State Department’s flawed internal review to the four dead Americans,” Los Angles Times, May 14, 2013.

Thomas Sowell, “Lies, darn lies and Benghazi,” The Patriot-News (Penn.), May 16, 2013 (updated May 16, 2013 at 8:16 AM).

Scott Wilson, “Benghazi e-mails released by White House,” Washington Post, May 15, 2013 (at 5:20 pm). The article contains a link to the e-mails that were released.

Peggy Noonan, “The Inconvenient Truth About Benghazi Did the Obama administration’s politically expedient story cost American lives?” The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2013 (Updated 6:41 p.m. ET).

Brett Stephens, “The Kissinger Question: Does America need a foreign policy? Obama thinks not,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2013 (8:35 p.m. ET)

Charles Krauthammer, “Redacted truth, subjunctive outrage,” Washington Post, May 17, 2013.


The so-called “Benghazi talking points” are merely the symbol, the tip of the iceberg so to speak, for something much bigger.


We now know that the Obama administration deceived the American people about Benghazi.

We now know how the Obama administration deceived the American people about Benghazi.

We now know that the initial deception, represented by Susan Rice’s talk show appearances on September 16, was followed by other deceptions, by a cover-up of the initial deception. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the press, for example, that the White House made only one or two stylistic changes to the talking points, such as using another term instead of the “consulate” in Benghazi (there was no consulate, just a CIA black operation).

But we now know, from the e-mails regarding the Benghazi talking points that have been released, that the White House insisted that the State Department’s concerns be taken into account, that a Principals Deputies Committee meeting was held (under National Security Council procedures) on September 15, hours before the talking points were given to Susan Rice on the eve of her Sunday talk show appearances, that the State Department pushed hard for the elimination of any references to prior warnings about the tenuous situation in Benghazi, or to the involvement of terrorist organizations or al-Qaeda affiliates in the attacks, and that the talking points that emerged from that Deputies meeting adhered to the State Department’s demands.

We now know that the Obama administration employs the massive apparatus of the state to manage the news, subjecting something as straightforward as telling the American people why and how four Americans, including their Ambassador, were killed in Benghazi on September 11-12, 2013, to endless convolutions of negotiated texts which had as their aim to downplay or obfuscate the known facts: the attacks in Benghazi were carried out by terrorist organizations with links to al-Qaeda, including Ansar al-Sharia.

We now know that we cannot take anything Jay Carney or Barack Obama says at face value. We must examine the assertion further.

President Obama’s credibility is in a free fall, whereas that of his press secretary has already hit the earth, shattered. Obama doesn’t understand these facts. Until he does, and takes forceful corrective action, his presidency will be crippled.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg.


Beneath this tip of the iceberg, the release of the e-mails reveals a shocking level of incompetence in the White House foreign policy team’s management of the Benghazi talking points and crisis. They were concerned about the the prejudicial impact of statements based on the talking points, for example, on judicial proceedings that might result from the FBI’s investigation into who was behind the attack!

Wait a minute!

Since when does the U.S. government ascertain who is behind events in foreign countries through an FBI investigation? Doesn’t the FBI investigate crimes within the U.S., and aren’t the CIA, other intelligence agencies, and the State Department responsible for reporting on the causes of events abroad? To be sure, the FBI may be called in when its special expertise is needed, as in the USS Cole investigation in Yemen in 2000, though in retrospect even that precedent raises serious questions.

But what utter incompetence and confusion can explain the fact that the Obama administration, in response to a terrorist attack on what was essentially a CIA operation in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four Americans including the Ambassador, assigned responsibility for ascertaining who was behind and participated in the attack to…the FBI?

With regard to Benghazi, we seem to have encountered the perfect marriage of supreme incompetence and politically motivated manipulation of the facts presented to the American people.

The situation is much worse than we thought.

Democrats Must Come Forward

This is not ultimately, or at least should not be, a partisan issue.

For the good of the Republic, one can only hope that Democrats will now come forward to force the president to look at and face the facts, as others see them (including impartial observers who have been paying attention to the details), and to quickly take whatever actions may be necessary both to organize his foreign policy team so that competent people are in charge, and to revamp his communications strategy and personnel in order to restore his credibility, starting by shooting straight with the American people.

The country needs a bi-partisan foreign policy. Attention to the details of the questions and the administrations’s responses should be the standard by which both the questioner and the administration are judged, not the party affiliation of the questioner involved.

The Trenchant Observer

Benghazi and Beyond

Friday, May 10th, 2013

After the Congressional testimony before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, May 8, 2013, new attention has been directed to the facts of the Beghazi affair. The North American Editor of BBC News has written, for example, that “heads will roll”.

See Mark Mardell (North American Editor), “After Benghazi revelations, heads will roll,” BBC News, May 10, 2013.

In order to understand the signficance of the Benghazi affair, it is important to recall how it has unfolded. For a detailed analysis of this saga, in roughly chronological order, see the following articles previously published by the Trenchant Observer:

New York Times makes ad hominem attack against Senator Lindsey Graham (R–South Carolina), February 13, 2013

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the foreign policy “successes” of our celebrity leaders, February 2, 2013

Hillary Clinton and “The Benghazi Triangle”—where careers and reputations vanish without a trace, December 17, 2012

Lies, Spies and Politics: The Incredible Evolution of the Benghazi “Talking Points” Narrative–Part II, November 27, 2012

Lies, Spies and Politics: The Incredible Evolution of the Benghazi “Talking Points” Narrative–Part I, November 22, 2012

Possible motives for forcing Petraeus resignation, November 19, 2012

Deliberate ambiguity: Talking points, and what Susan Rice said on September 16 talk shows, November 16, 2012

Petraeus, Allen, Benghazi potpourri, November 16, 2012

Benghazi machinations continue: CIA announces investigation of Petraeus on eve of his testimony to Congress, November 16, 2012

Chain-of-command failure? Benghazi and the ghost of “Black Hawk Down”; Obama’s credibility (Updated November 15), November 14, 2012

All Eyes on Benghazi: The Petraeus Affair, Allen’s e-mails, and other distractions, November 13, 2012

Collateral damage: Holly Petraeus, and other victims of the Petraeus affaire (II), November 11, 2012

Collateral damage: Holly Petraeus, and other victims of the Petraeus affair, November 11, 2012

On eve of testimony to Congress on Benghazi, CIA Director David Petraeus forced out over an affair, November 9th, 2012

Benghazi update: New questions raised on intelligence, decision-making failures (Updated November 6, 2012), November 5, 2012

New details on Benghazi attack on consulate, American response, October 13, 2012

No time for cowboys: U.S. preparation for reprisals against Libyan targets, October 3, 2012

U.S. Ambassador to Libya murdered during assault on American consulate in Benghazi, September 12, 2012

The Ultimate Questions

At the end of the day, the most important questions that remain unanswered are the following:

1. What did the President know, and when did he know it?

2. What was the involvement of the President in the decision making on the night of September 11-12?

3. What orders did the President issue to the military and other agencies (such as the CIA) on the night of September 11-12, 2012?

4. What recommendations for military action did the President receive from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and what was his response to these recommendations?

The Trenchant Observer

Brennan’s wristbands, McCain’s hold, and assertions of legality under international law based on secret operations and secret legal memoranda (with links to Brennan confirmation hearing video, transcript, and written questions and answers)

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
–Lord Acton (1834-1902)

A remarkable photo of John Brennan at his Senate testimony on February 7, 2013, shows him wearing yellow and black plastic bands on his right wrist.

What are they, and what do they signify? Was he sending secret messages to certain people regarding his testimony? It is hard to know, but his appearance with those two hospital-like wrist-bands at his testimony was exceedingly strange.

Is he a member of the Knights of Malta, and was he signalling them something?

In the meantime, Senator John McCain has indicated that until he gets better answers about Benghazi and Brennan’s knowledge of CIA harsh interrogation techniques, he may place a “hold” on his nomination.

John McCain is distinguished in one particular respect, which gives him a unique perspective and great moral authority: he is the only U.S. Senator who has actually been tortured (in seven years of captivity in Vietnam).

See the photograph of Brennan (Alex Wong/Getty Images) and the story about McCain’s possible hold in:

Karen DeYoung, “McCain renews threat to hold up Brennan confirmation to CIA post,” Washington Post, February 24, 2013 (07:49 PM EST).

There was one notable attempt at humor during the February 7 confirmation hearing:

SENATOR BURR: Thank you, Chairman.

I’m going to try to be brief, because I’ve noticed you’re on
your fourth glass of water, and I don’t want to be accused
of waterboarding you.


How members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence can laugh at such an obscene joke surpasses understanding.

Torture is no laughing matter. Their laughter shows they are uncomfortable with torture. Their use of euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “EITs” shields them from grappling, on an emotional and psychological level, with the terror they are referring to.

Worth noting in connection with international law and drone strikes are the following written question from the Chairman and answer by John Brennan:

[Committee Chairman] Could you describe the geographical limits on the Administration’s conduct drone strikes?

[John Brennan]As I noted in my speech at Harvard Law School in September 2011, and as the Attorney General stated publicly in March, we do not view our authority to use military force against al-Qa’ida and associated forces as being limited to “hot” battlefields like Afghanistan. Al-Qa’ida and its associates have in the recent past directed several attacks against us from countries other than Afghanistan. The Government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from these attacks, and, thus, as the Attorney General has noted, “neither Congress nor our federal courts has limited the geographic scope of our ability to use force to the current conflict in Afghanistan.”

This does not mean, however, that we use military force whenever or wherever we want. International legal principles, such as respect for another nation’s sovereignty, constrain our ability to act unilaterally. Using force in another country is consistent with these international legal principles if conducted, for example, with the consent of the relevant nation – or if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to deal effectively with a threat to the United States. (emphasis added)

–U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Open Hearing: Nomination of John O. Brennan to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency,” February 7, 2013, Responses to Posthearing Questions.

The material on the Committee’s website now includes the following:

Opening Statement
Responses to Questionnaire for Completion by Presidential Nominees
Responses to Additional Prehearing Questions
Responses to Posthearing Questions
Archived Video

How can independent international lawyers form judgments about the legality of specific drone attacks when their very occurrence is officially held as a secret, and the legal interpretations of international law governing the use of force the Obama administration advances to justify their legality are also held in secret, both in terms of general authorization and in terms of authorized use in the specific targeted killing under examination?

How can any credence be given to such assertions of legality under international law when the legal justifications are themselves held in secret, from the Congress, from the American public, and from independent international legal experts outside the government in foreign countries, in foreign governments, and indeed in international tribunals?

The effectiveness of international law depends on the obligation of states to offer legal justifications for their actions. When the right of self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter is invoked, there is a specific requirement that they report actions taken in self-defense to the Security Council.

Here, the U.S. government does not acknowledge it is the author of drone strikes. It does not offer public legal justifications for its targeted killing activities, either under domestic or international law. It does not report such actions to the U.N. Security Council as specifically required by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.

The government claims the right to execute U.S. and other citizens on the basis of secret legal memoranda and in the total absence of any public legal justifications for specific targeted executions.

John Brennan is the author of that policy under President Obama, and has served as its principal coordinator and implementer for the last four years.

To the extent these targeted executions cannot be justified by international law, they constitute assassinations and probably war crimes.

In the absence of public justifications of such actions, they cannot be viewed as legitimate under international law, which by its very nature requires public justifications of public actions permitting reactions by leading international scholars, other countries, and international tribunals.

Any claim of legality under international law based on secret operations and secret legal memoranda is by definition illegitimate and lacking in any persuasive force whatsoever.

The Trenchant Observer

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the foreign policy “successes” of our celebrity leaders

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013


[Note: Today’s article is a bit unusual in format, consisting of long portions of an article on Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State, the soft gloves with which the media now treat our “celebrity” president and other high “celebrity” government officials, together with a checklist of foreign policy subject areas and themes which any objective analysis of Hillary Clinton’s successes and failures as Secretary of State would need to take into account, focusing not on verbal policies but on facts on ground and the actions of other states. This latter section is somewhat adumbrated and incomplete, and in many ways could serve as an outline for a whole series of articles. However, it is offered now as a corrective to some of the hagiography currently being showered on Hillary Clinton, by President Obama and others, without regard for the factual record.]

Celebrity + popularity + miles traveled = foreign policy success

The loss of hard-hitting impartiality in foreign policy reporting, commentary and opinion is illustrated by President Barack Obama’s and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s joint appearance on “60 Minutes” this last Sunday.

See “The President and the Secretary of State,” 60 Minutes, January 27, 2013.

There, as elsewhere on TV, they were treated like celebrities and judged by the kind of standards we use to judge celebrities:

Are they gracious, or apparently so?

Do they smile and laugh a lot in a friendly interview situation?

Are their little pleasantries amusing, and well-delivered?

Are they handsome and attractive, with million-dollar smiles?

While Steve Kroft’s intention might have been simply to draw them out, one cannot imagine Mike Wallace letting such an opportunity go by without asking–and following up on–the hard and penetrating questions of a first-rate journalist about the foreign policy of the United States.

Instead, this is what we got:

Steve Kroft: This is very improbable. This is not an interview I ever expected to be doing. But I understand, Mr. President, this was your idea. Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?

President Obama: Well, the main thing is I just wanted to have a chance to publicly say thank you, because I think Hillary will go down as one of the finest secretary of states we’ve had. It has been a great collaboration over the last four years. I’m going to miss her. Wish she was sticking around. But she has logged in so many miles, I can’t begrudge her wanting to take it easy for a little bit. But I want the country to appreciate just what an extraordinary role she’s played during the course of my administration and a lot of the successes we’ve had internationally have been because of her hard work.

Steve Kroft: Has she had much influence–

President Obama: Well, I–

Steve Kroft: –in this administration?

President Obama: I think everybody understands that Hillary’s been, you know, one of the most important advisors that I’ve had on a whole range of issues. Hillary’s capacity to travel around the world, to lay the groundwork for a new way of doing things, to establish a sense of engagement that, you know, our foreign policy was not going to be defined solely by Iraq, that we were going to be vigilant about terrorism, but we were going to make sure that we deployed all elements of American power, diplomacy, our economic and cultural and social capital, in order to bring about the kinds of international solutions that we wanted to see. I had confidence that Hillary could do that. And, you know, one of the things that I will always be grateful for is– yeah, it wasn’t just that she and I had to integrate. I mean, we had Bob Gates, who was a holdover from the Bush administration. You know Leon Panetta to take over the CIA. And so we had a lot of very strong personalities around the table. And, you know, I think one of the things that Hillary did was establish a standard in terms of professionalism and teamwork in our cabinet, in our foreign policy making that said, “We’re going to have an open discussion. We’re going to push each other hard. There are going to be times where we have some vigorous disagreements. Once the president makes a decision though we’re going to go out there and execute.

Steve Kroft: How would you characterize your relationship right now?

President Obama: I consider Hillary a strong friend….

The general consensus among commentators in Washington, consciously or unconsciously using these “celebrity” criteria and others we use to bestow esteem on celebrities, is that Obama’s and Hillary’s foreign policy has been very successful.

Hillary is often referred to as an extraordinarily successful Secretary of State, or as one of the most successful Secretaries of State in recent times. Indeed, that is how President Obama described her in the 60 Minutes interview quoted above.

But there is little analysis of foreign policy successes and failures supporting such conclusions. In fact, the closer we look at the substance of the foreign policy positions and decisions Obama and Hillary have adopted, the more distressing the picture becomes. As the patina of celebrity politicians and celebrity government officials fades away under the withering sunlight of serious examination, it turns out that all of the hoopla and self-contented praise our officials shower on each other has been hiding another reality, that of real facts on the ground in the real world unfiltered by the television media and many in the Washington and New York written press.

To judge Hillary’s successes and failures, we must look beyond her celebrity status and that of her patron, President Barack Obama, to ask simply, “What is it, in the real world, that she has actually accomplished during her four years in office?

How do her accomplishments stack up against those of Madeline Albright,  James Baker, Warren Christopher, or Dean Rusk, for example? What, in short, has she actually accomplished?

Sadly, the answer appears to be, “precious little”.  If her excuse is that she has only been an “implementer” of foreign policy crafted in the White House, that itself is a strong commentary on what she herself has or has not contributed during her own term in office.

So, let us begin to look at the facts.

Background Factors

The need for a bipartisan foreign policy, and the partisan nature of foreign policy analysis in the U.S.
–Partisan lockstep and loyalty chorus instead of independent analysis based on factual reporting by seasoned foreign correspondents and analyses by subject matter and regional experts.

The loss of respect for expertise and expert knowledge.
–Confidential inside sources and transmittal of “anonymous sources” information without verification.
–On TV, the preference for glib, young, attractive faces over seasoned experts. Here, anyone can be an expert.
–The failure to make rigorous judgments based on factual analysis and expert opinion.
–Celebrity, buzz, and partisan management of the political narrative transposed to foreign policy analysis. Hence, the chorus of Hillary’s “most-miles’ traveled” success as Secretary of State.
–Obama sings this refrain, without substantiation, because if Hillary’s success narrative gains traction, his own foreign-policy success narrative also gains traction.

In fact, historians of foreign policy may speak of the dramatic failures of Obama’s and Hillary’s foreign policy, with the most important questions focusing on issues of who was most responsible for them.

The first-term successes and failures of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

Let’s begin with a checklist. (Readers are encouraged to fill in the blanks.)







Benghazi and what it stands for

–growth of al-Queda and Islamic terrorists in Libya, north Africa, and the Sahel
–failure of covert operations approach to Syria
–total intelligence failure regarding terrorist activities in Benghazi
–failure to provide sufficient assistance to the new democracies of the Arab Spring to enable them to stay on a democratic and “rule of law” course

Significantly, Hillary Clinton’s long-delayed testimony on Benghazi took place this last week, on January 23, 2013.  Amy Davidson reported in the New Yorker on the following exchange:

“(T)here was…a scene that will surely be replayed in attack ads and echoed (and possibly distorted) in the Republican primary campaign, assuming that Clinton does run. It came in an exchange with Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. Like many of his colleagues, he goaded. (“I realize that’s a good excuse,” he said when Clinton talked about not interfering with investigations.) She lost her patience when he said, not for the first time, that she could have found out what was going on at the consulate easily enough if she wanted to.

Clinton: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.

Johnson: I understand.

Clinton: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? (emphasis added)

It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this. But the fact is that people were trying in real time to get the best information….But, you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

What difference, at this point, does it make?”

–Amy Davidson, “Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Testimony: What Difference Will it Make?” The New Yorker, January 23, 2013.


–failure to grasp and respond to what is going on in Egypt


Sub-Saharan Africa

–Transitions to democracy
–Growth in number and strength of Islamist terrorist organizations

Mexico and Central America

–Violence and insecurity in Mexico, on the border with the United States
–Growing drug violence and insecurity in Guatema, El Salvador, and especially Honduras.
–Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega as a newly authoritarian state, joining with Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia seeking to weaken the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the analogous institutions in the Americas to the European Court of Human Rights.


–as it faces Hugo Chavez’ impending exit from the scene, on the verge of a constitutional coup d’etat as the Chavistas seek to cling to power by unconstitutional means.


–ouster of President of Supreme Court, abandoning the rule of law

Military strategy

–so called “pivot to Asia”
–abandonment of two-war requirement in U.S. military strategy in favor of an unproven Counter-terrorism strategy like that espoused by Vice-President Joe Biden.  Betting the farm on an unproven theory.
–adoption of unproven “Counter-terrorism” strategy while reducing military capabilities, such as those in Mediterranean that might have been useful in Benghazi


–Obama administration policy and actions during the leadership transition in Beijing
–Did the so-called “pivot to Asia” and plans for an increased naval presence in the region affect the succession of a new generation of leaders in China?
–Were there any real experts on China advising Obama on these issues, and if so did he listen to them?
–strengthening military capabilities of allies ringing China
–U.S. naval force deployments

China and Japan

–doing nothing to defuse tensions, including dangerous  military interactions, in matter of disputed islands
–here, blindness to international law prevents U.S. from advancing most promising route for defusing crisis
–a growth of dangerous nationalism in both countries, with China evidencing a willingness to display and perhaps use force

Nuclear Proliferation

–North Korea
–Middle East
–the risk of proliferation throughout the Middle East

Climate Change


Human Rights

–kill lists; drone strikes and special forces operations
–denial of fundamental rights. See Jimmy Carter’s op-ed in the New York Times. Guantánamo.
–dealing with those responsible for Bush torture policy
–cooperating with countries which use torture
–non-cooperation with the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with respect to cases brought against the U.S.

Statute of the International Criminal Court

–Failure to push for ratification

Failure to develop new or adopt existing multilateral conventions or treaties

–In particular, multilateral treaties establishing legal norms and regimes regulating new forms of warfare, from done strikes to cyber-warfare

Judgments on the success of Obama’s and Clinton’s foreign policy should be based on careful assessment and analysis of U.S. actions (not just verbal policies) in the areas listed above, and others.

To simply shout in partisan chorus that Hillary has been a great Secretary of State, without reference to and analysis of the detailed factual record, is simply a strategy by politicians to transfer to the foreign policy arena the use of political narrative management techniques.  It is political, not analytical, in nature, and should be firmly resisted by all of those who want to see constructive, fact-based foreign policy debates aimed at finding and implementing the best policies for the country.

Until we are able to have those debates and discussions, a bipartisan foreign policy will be forever beyond our reach.

And the dialogue of the deaf, le dialogue des sourds, will continue, as many situations in other countries and regions, or globally, deteriorate in a leaderless world.

As for Hillary Clinton, three points illuminate the extent of her failed tenure as Secretary of State:

1. Her avoiding the TV shows and hiding from the cameras and congressional panels that wanted to know what happened, and what she and Barack Obama knew and when they knew it after the attacks in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens on September 11, 2012.  Her summary dismissal of Benghazi and the entire substance of the Susan Rice affair, in recent Congressional testimony, demonstrated an extraordinary degree of cynicism and almost unprecedented chutzpah, or insolence. “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

What difference did it make that the administration successfully hid the fact that its policies in North Africa were in total disarray, as demonstrated by the September 11 attacks in Benghazi and recent events in Mali?

What difference did it make that the Obama administration and campaign downplayed the Al-Qaeda links of those who attacked U.S. compounds in Benghazi, and killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans?

What difference did it make that Obama and his administration, during the election campaign, misrepresented the degree of their success in the battle against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates?

2. Hillary Clinton’s failure, and Obama’s failure, to lead international efforts to halt the atrocities in Syria, including military action, and to avoid the creation of a failed state where a dominant player, the al-Nusra Front, is an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

3. The State Department’s failure, under Hillary Clinton, to comment on Israel’s recent attack on targets in the Sudan, or its very recent bombing attacks inside Syrian territory. If the State Department cannot speak to the international law issues involved, who in the American government can?

Has the United States become an enemy of international law, a founding member of the “‘International Law Be Damned’ Club”?

Historians are not likely to be kind to Hillary Clinton in her role as Secretary of State. She used her star power to shield herself and the Obama administration from substantive criticism of what has turned out to be a disastrous foreign policy.


1. Relations with Russia have deteriorated sharply, while personal relations between Obama and Putin seem to have reached sub-zero temperatures.

2. Relations with China are not good. A new generation of leaders, which appear to be more hard-line than the technocrats that preceded them, has taken power. China is engaged in a very dangerous policy of military confrontation with Japan over disputed islands, as noted above.

3. Relations between China and Japan have reached what is perhaps their lowest point since the end of World War II, or at least the end of the Korean War.  This an extremely dangerous development for the prospects of international peace and security.

4. The Middle East is in great turmoil. Syria is in flames, due in part to the inexcusable failure of Obama and Clinton to lead international actions to bring the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity to a halt, including the limited use of military force when necessary.

5. The United States has stood by, and even lent support to Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as they proceeded with their November 22, 2012 coup d’état and the shutting down of the Constitutional Court through the use of “brown-shirt” tactics.

The U.S. and the West have been losing Egypt, just as they lost Iran in 1979.

6. The future leadership of Venezuela is being decided in Havana, Cuba, which is only the tip of the iceberg of U.S. failures in Latin America due to America’s policy of neglect in most, though not all, of the countries in the region.

Where are the successes of Obama’s and Hillary’s first term in office?

Hillary Clinton is in many ways an admirable politician and public figure. But that should not blind us to the facts regarding her tenure as Secretary of State under Obama.

There have undoubtedly been some achievements during her term of office, in the area of women’s rights, for example. Undoubtedly, many dedicated and talented people in the State Department have achieved significant goals and objectives, and this too is part of the story.

But here, we are talking about foreign policy successes and failures in the larger sense, in the grand scheme of things.

While Clinton pushed for women’s rights, admirably, she also failed to criticize Mohamed Morsi when he launched a coup d’état after helping her broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel as the latter was poised to invade Gaza. Did Hillary’s praise embolden Morsi to launch his coup?  That coup  led to the illegitimate adoption of a draft constitution (later approved in a hurried referendum that did not allow time for debate throughout the country), enshrining a stricter adherence to sharia law, and also the removal of the first female judge of the constitutional court, who had been an inspirational figure in the struggle to bring women into the judiciary in Egypt.

Nor does the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan bode well for the women of that country.

Hillary worked hard, and traveled almost a million miles, and visited over a hundred countries. But these are not indicators of foreign policy success.

In the grand scheme of things, what did she achieve?

It may turn out to be the case that she was consistently pushed aside by Obama and his foreign policy team in the White House.  We look forward to reading her memoirs, and hope they will be candid. The risk is that political considerations could compromise the forthrightness of those memoirs, should she decide to seek the presidency in 2016.  Indeed, that could well have been Obama’s intention in orchestrating the “love fest” on “60 Minutes” on January 27.   That could be his calculation.  That could be why he wanted to say “thank you” in the way he did.

We can only hope that Hilary will write her memoirs, beginning soon, with the kind of historical candor that would add to our understanding of foreign-policy decision making within the Obama administration.  We need to know the battles which she fought and lost or won within the administration during the president’s first term.  That could greatly advance the foreign policy interests of the United States, opening up the discussion in a way which might lead to corrective action and avoidance of further failures during Obama’s second term. 

Yet as a political candidate she could find that book hard to write.

Nonetheless, whatever course she may choose to take in the future, in assessing her achievements and failures as Secretary of State, let us at least take a hard look at the facts and try to be objective.

The Trenchant Observer

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Coup d’Etat in Egypt; William Butler Yeats and “The Second Coming”

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

With the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent coup d’etat in Egypt, following on other measures it has taken in the last year, a dark pall has fallen over the Middle East.

A historic failure of U.S. leadership has not been the only cause, but it has left the advocates of modernity and democracy without a champion.

It is tragic that President Obama and the United States have not spoken out strongly, unequivocally, for restoration of the rule of law in Egypt.

Historians will have to sort out the causes of the decline of the influence of the West in the Middle East in the last few years, but surely American disinterest and unwillingness to get involved–in solving the Palestinian issue, or dealing with the barbarism of Bashar al-Assad in Syria–will weigh heavily in their accounts. With the United States in retreat since at least March of 2011, the region has been falling into anarchy and the hands of Islamic parties which, collectively, could potentially lead to the establishment of Islamic dictatorships throughout the region. Egypt is of extraordinary significance, for it is the cultural capital of the Arab world.

We are currently witnessing what happened in Iran–as it is actually happening, day by day, in Egypt.

The democratic promise of the Arab Spring, including the overthrow of tyrannical regimes in Tunisia and Libya, has not engendered the financial and other support from the West and other countries that might have helped sustain it, something like a Marshall plan for the New Democracies of the Middle East.

As the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi have just executed a coup d’etat in Egypt, the West—including the United States—stands leaderless, paralyzed, unable to react or to attempt to influence the rush of events in that country.

The United States and the West could consider blocking a $4.8 billion standby loan agreement between the IMF and Egypt, for example, if Morsi does not rescind his constitutional decree and the Brotherhood’s headlong race toward adoption of a constitution without the support of non-Islamic parties. But no one in Washington seems to be paying attention or to be thinking that fast.

Students of history may recall that Adolph Hitler came to power through free elections, but moved swiftly to control or eliminate potential opponents through a process known as the em>Gleichschaltung), or forced coordination.

Above all, the failure of the United States to openly lead a coalition to halt Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities in Syria has resulted in a loss of respect and influence in the region, while producing a covert program of supplying arms to the Syrian rebels through deeply conservative regimes whose interests seem to lie not in democracy, but in defeating Shia’s and empowering conservative and Islamist Sunni militias.

The cumulative policy failures and ongoing withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving that country in conditions whose dire consequences are likely to be felt, if not immediately at least in the not-too-distant future; and the strategic failure in Iraq to achieve the administration’s central goal of a status of forces agreement–when the U.S. had leverage–and the resultant withdrawal of all U.S. forces leaving the gains from that war to unravel, have given the impression that the West is in retreat, contributing to a sense of impending doom.

Hamas celebrates victory as a result of the Egyptian-brokered truce agreement following its bombardment of Israel with rockets and Israel’s response, while Palestine is granted U.N. Observer status at the U.N., an implicit recognition of a Palestinian state achieved not through negotiation with the Israelis, but through negotiations in the corridors of the U.N.

Everywhere, supporters of democracy and modernity seem to be suffering a sharp decline in fortunes and influence. Unwilling to take a stand for their values in Syria, U.S. and Western supporters should perhaps not be too surprised now as those values are pushed aside.

The Benghazi fiasco is emblematic of the failure of U.S. policy in the region. Its significance is that, like a wartime flare on a dark night, it illuminates the administration’s policy failures throughout the Middle East, how they are connected, and how their consequences are all coming together as they did in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012.

The situation is ominous. One is reminded of the “The Second Coming”, William Butler Yeats’ celebrated poem written after World War I, which reads as follows:

The Second Coming (published 1921)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats

The Trenchant Observer

Lies, Spies and Politics: The Incredible Evolution of the Benghazi “Talking Points” Narrative–Part I

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012


Intelligence agencies use deception as a standard operating procedure. CIA operations are by nature secret, and intelligence agencies go to great lenghts to keep them secret, even if their existence sometimes may be leaked if it suits the president’s purposes.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the reporting by American reporters on the Benghazi attacks has been mostly based on off-the-record interviews with administration officials, and that the latter have presented their revelations and confirmations in ways which pursue their own objectives, on background, usually on deep background where even the agency of the source is not revealed. Such reporters seem quite content to simply pass on the latest “revelations”, without vetting them against other known facts and statements. Often, it does not add up.

The constantly evolving narrative of the CIA “talking points” used by Susan Rice on the Sunday talk shows on September 16 illustrates the confusion of such spinning by intelligence officials whose modus operandi is deception and secrecy. First we learn that the so-called talking points were drafted by the CIA. Then we learn they were changed by someone, but all the intelligence chiefs testified that they didn’t know by whom. Then we learn that the CIA draft was not changed by the intelligence agencies, but sent up to the NSC Deputies Committee. Wednesday we learn that the DNI now says that they edited the talking points, as did other agencies.

None of the edits were necessary for national security reasons, in the original opinion of the CIA. Intelligence officials on background justify their edits on the grounds that leaving in the references to al-Queda affiliates and sympathizers would have revealed methods and sources, thereby revealing methods and sources.

On Wedneday, Susan Rice reiterates that she only told the talk shows what was in the talking points. The media fail to point out that she also included references in her statements on those shows to “armed individuals” and “small groups of armed individuals” in an effort to stress the disorganized nature of the attack, when such presumably classified information was not in her “talking points”.

The first duty of a journalist used to be to get to the bottom of things, to sort out all the conflicting evidence and tell the audience what it means, not simply to pass it on. The Washington press corps has, by and large, failed to get to the bottom of things. That is why, two months and 11 days after the attacks at Benghazi, we the public still don’t know for sure exactly what happened, or exactly what the CIA black operation was doing in Benghazi.

Were they providing arms to the Syrian rebels?

The press has failed, spectacularly, to provide an answer to this question, which lies at the heart of the Benghazi affair.They have done so, presumably, because they were asked to withhold those details by the Obama administration’s intelligence agencies. With very few and limited exceptions, the fact that they have published no further details about the CIA’s black operation in Benghazi demonstrates the extent to which the Washington press corps has become a servile instrument of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

The fact that the administration was able to control the media’s reporting of the CIA’s black operation in Benghazi should be a matter of extraordinary concern to citizens of a free country who are utterly dependent on a free press, and a free press which to be meaningful must aggressively seek out and publish the facts even when the government wants to keep them secret.

Indeed, more broadly, there has been precious little fundamental criticism of Obama’s foreign policies and the details and quality of their implementation.

What were the CIA’s operatives doing in Benghazi?

The answer is of overriding importance for the development and implementation of an effective U.S. foreign policy. From a policy perspective, there is a fundamental question of whether the nation’s interests have been served by Obama’s covert operations relating to Syria, or would have been better served by an open and public policy of support for those forces in Syria who are seeking to bring to an end al-assad’s barbarism, involving widespread commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Such attacks have not been seen in a modern state at least since the Balkan wars of the 1990’s, and possibly since the atrocities of the German Nazi state of Adolph Hitler before and during World War II.

Some 40,000 Syrians have died as a result of the inaction of the international community, and the failure of leadership of the Obama administration. Obama has even blocked the efforts of other states to bring force to bear to halt Bashar al-Assad’s assault on the civilization and people of Syria.

Quite simply, the United States has failed to lead, and whatever beneficial results it has achieved through covert operations have come at a heavy cost. The Saudi defense minister is reportedly playing a key role in coordinating the covert supply of weapons to the Syrian opposition, just as he did with respect to supplying the insurgents in Afghanistan in the 1980’s following the Soviet invasion of that country, when he was ambassador to Washington. We are still dealing with the “blowback” from that operation, as the war in Afghanistan grinds on in its 11th year.

It should come as no surprise that Islamist groups are benefitting from this arrangement at the expense of more secular groups. This is a direct result of the U.S. pursuit of a covert policy in Syria, instead of an open policy that might have led to early confrontation with al-Assad and the saving of tens of thousands of lives.

The spill-over effects of this covert war are being felt throughout the region. Hamas was emboldened by the visit of the leader of Qatar in recent weeks. A looming confrontation between Syria and Turkey, with NATO involvement in supplying Patriot missiles to Turkey while Russia vehemently objects, demonstrations in Jordan including calls for the end of the monarchy, and a continuing threat against the independence of Lebanon, are only some of the knock-on effects of Obama’s covert policy and lack of leadership on Syria. In the

The foreign policy of the United States towards Syria should be debated in public, and carried out in public.

The press has a crtical role to play in guaranteeing that this occurs. Its job is to search out the truth and to report it to its readers and its electronic audience. That truth, and only that truth, can guide the nation in choosing a wise and effective foreign policy.

The Trenchant Observer

All Eyes on Benghazi: The Petraeus Affair, Allen’s e-mails, and other distractions

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Marcellus; “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
–Hamlet, Act I, Scene 4, 87-91

If President Barack Obama had schemed with his closest confidantes to come up with a set of diversions that could distract journalists’ and the nation’s attention from the colossal national security failures which occurred at Benghazi on September 11-12, he could not have come up with a better narrative than the Petraeus affair, including the latter’s liaison with Paula Broadwell and General John Allen’s relationship with Broadwell’s nemesis, Jill Kelly.

Yet as salacious and suspenseful as the unraveling of the downfall of David Petraeus may be, the gravity of matters of state requires that we maintain our attention intently focused on what happened before, during, and after the events in Benghazi on September 11-12.

Petraeus’ testimony to Congress about Benghazi would have been riveting. Instead, he was forced out between Tuesday, November 6, and Friday, November 9.

Why? Who did the pushing? Are we to really believe that James Clapper prevailed on Petraeus to resign without running it by Obama first?

Observe closely the following chronology of events:

1.  Petraeus traveled to Libya within the last few weeks to meet with the CIA station chief, and would have brought this first hand information to the Congressional hearings at which he was to testify this week, beginning November 13, had he not been forced out.

2.  The FBI concluded that no security issue arose and no crime had been committed by either David Petraeus or Paula Broadwell, and communicated to them in late October that there would not be any further pursuit of the investigation.

3.  Nonetheless, around 5:00 p.m. on the evening of November 6, someone at the FBI reportedly called James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence and Petraeus’ immediate superior, to inform him that Petraeus had had an affair with Broadwell.

Who made this call? Why, and on whose direction was the call made?

4. Clapper then called Petraeus later Tuesday evening (November 6), and informed him of the call from the FBI. In that call or in a subsequent call on Wednesday morning, Clapper urged Petraeus to resign.


“Timeline of events surrounding CIA Director Petraeus’ resignation”, Reuters, November 11, 2012.

P. J. Tobia, “Timeline of Events Revolving Around Gen. David Petraeus’ Resignation,” PBS Newshour, November 12, 2012.

Heidi Moore, “Petraeus scandal: a readers’ guide to the clandestine soap opera and its cast; As the story entangles more characters, use our guide to keep track of the details that would make a TV writer’s head spin, ” The Guardian, November 14, 2012 (11:23 EST).

Clapper, as Director of National Intelligence overseeing 16 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the FBI, the DIA, and the NSA, was Petraeus’ immediate superior.

5.  On Wednesday, Clapper called an official at the National Security Council (probably Donilon) and told him of the affair and that Petraeus was likely to resign.

6.  On Wednesday Petraeus reportedly called Tom Donilon, the President’s National Security Adviser, and requested an appointment with the President.

7. Petraeus met with President Obama on Thursday and offered his resignation.

8. On Friday, November 9, Obama called Petraeus and accepted his resignation.

Aside from the palace intrigue surrounding Obama and his national security team, the central importance of Petraeus is that he promised to be a witness before Congress who could tell the nation what really happened at Benghazi before and on the night of September 11-12.

The following questions are of critical importance, and deserve the highest priority from investigative reporters–and urgent answers:

1. Did the CIA alone prepare the talking points to prepare Susan Rice before she went on the Sunday talk shows on October 16, to give the impression the government believed the attack in Benghazi grew out of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim film which, as the administration knew then, never occurred?  What was the motive behind providing this information? Who in the CIA, at the direction of whom, prepared and presented these talking points to Rice?  Did Whit House officials have a hand in preparing the talking points?

Are we to believe that Rice, now reported on background to be Obama’s choice for Secretary of State, blindly relied on these talking points, and did not check with officials in the State Department to learn their version of events? Was Obama involved in any way with the decisions that led her to present the story to the talk shows that the attack grew out of a demonstration against the anti-Muslim film?

2. Did Petraeus and/or President Obama participate in the decisions about whether the CIA security forces at the Annex should come to the rescue of the Ambassador and others at the consulate? What was the precise timing of those decisions? Did Obama make other decisions not to send more robust assistance to defend the consulate? At what time did the attack on the consulate begin?

3. What role did Africa Command (Africom) commander General Carter Ham play in efforts to send backup security or military forces to defend the consulate and annex in Benghazi? Why was the fact that he was to be replaced suddenly and unexpectedly announced on October 18, only a year and a half after beginning the assignment? What were the reasons that led General Ham on October 30 to announce his retirement? If, as has been rumored, he disobeyed an order to stand down, why wasn’t he immediately fired, and then prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice?

4. Were there naval units in the region that might have dispatched forces to defend the consulate and annex in Benghazi? If so, why were they not used to come to the aid of Christopher Stevens and the other Americans at the consulate and the Annex?

5.  What is the explanation for the rescue force arriving at the airport and being held for hours before they were able to get through immigration?

6.  Finally, the elephant in the room, which journalists seem afraid to touch:  What were the CIA agents at the annex doing there?

The Trenchant Observer

International law and foreign policy questions for third presidential debate

Sunday, October 21st, 2012


Questions for Romney and Obama at the third presidential debate on foreign policy, to be held on October 22

1.  Will you push for Senate ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights? Why or why not?

2. Will you push for U.S. ratification of the Statute of the International Criminal Court? Why or why not?r

3.  Will you reverse the Reagan administration’s withdrawal from the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice? Why or why not?

4. Will you work energetically with other countries to establish new norms or clarifications of existing norms regulating the use of force by drones within the framework of international law and the United Nations Charter? Why or why not?

5. Will you block or suspend the adoption of Most-Favored-Nation treatment for Russian goods and services, and other trade benefits, until Russia agrees to take effective action on Syria in the U.N. Security Council? Or do you believe the U.S. should do business as usual with Russia (and China) despite their blocking of Security Council actions to control the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Syrian government?

6. Will you energetically push for China and other concerned states to commit to refer any unsettled territorial disputes in the South China Sea, or elsewhere, to the International Court of Justice for binding decision? Why or why not?

7. For background to assist in formulating the critical questions on the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and the American response, see

The Trenchant Observer, “New details on Benghazi attack on consulate, American response,” October 13, 2012

The Trenchant Observer, “No time for cowboys: U.S. preparation for reprisals against Libyan targets,” October 3, 2012

The Trenchant Observer, ,”U.S. Ambassador to Libya murdered during assault on American consulate in Benghazi,” September 12, 2012

8. Will you lead efforts with others to supply arms and, if necessary, use air strikes or other military force to halt the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria? Why or why not?

The Trenchant Observer

Muslim rage and the West: The expression of regret for the protected speech of others

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

“Muslim Rage”, Riots, and Criminal Attacks in Response to the Film Entitled “The Innocence of Muslims”

The publication on the Internet of a  “trailer” for a film entitled “The Innocence of Muslims” has given rise to demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries, including Egypt where the government did not prevent demonstrators from scaling the walls of the U.S. embassy and entering the courtyard on the first day, September 11, and Libya where a murderous assault was mounted later that evening by organized paramilitary forces against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The hesitation of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in ordering additional police and in condemning the assault on the the U.S. Embassy on the first day of the protests, before President Barack Obama telephoned him, was particularly chilling and raised questions about future U.S. collaboration with the government of the Muslim Brotherhood led by Morsi.

What we are witnessing is a kind of cultural battle in which the main protagonists are the forces of Modernity, represented by the West in the popular imagination of the Arab Street, but also and importantly by broad sectors of the populations in Islamic countries which are educated and want to join the modern world, on the one hand, and extremist Muslim groups which oppose Modernity and the West, and seek to return 21st century societies to the conditions presumed to have existed in a distant imagined past, including a theocratic form of government in which a harsh form of Shari’a or Muslim religious law and social codes from that era are imposed on the population as God’s law and God’s social order.

Advocates and defenders of Modernity, including those in the West, are operating on an uneven playing field in a cultural conflict between these two approaches to government and society.  In the West, the tolerance and democratic values of Modernity protect the views of Islamic extremists who reject those very values, while in practice in Muslim countries the reverse is often not the case.

Historical Perspective

The West has benefited from centuries of developments that have led to the existence of the modern, tolerant democratic state.

In England, limitations on the powers of the King vis-à-vis the aristocracy were established in the Magna Carta of 1215.  Religious independence from Rome was achieved in the 16th century.  Further restrictions on government resulted from the English Revolution of 1688 and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

On the Continent of Europe, religious pluralism was achieved as the result of a long struggle, including the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517 with Martin Luther and, in the 17th century, the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648) culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, establishing the right of rulers to choose the religion of their followers.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment charted the philosophical basis for a firm separation between Church and State, which was achieved in the American and the French Revolutions.  Both revolutions also gave rise to declarations of rights of citizens as against their governments, limiting the authority of the latter in important realms such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, trial by due process of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.  In France, during the French Revolution and afterwards, ridicule of and attacks upon the Catholic Church were merciless. For example, at a time when it was forbidden for Catholics to eat meat on Friday, the Freemasons, to make their point, held luncheons at which they feasted to excess on pork, beef and every other kind of meat.

In the Islamic world, while there have been periods of remarkable tolerance, in the end these approaches have not yet prevailed in many countries of  the Middle East and South Asia, and as a result the culture and political realities of many of these countries have been characterized by a pattern of not infrequently settling differences of opinion, particularly as to religious matters, either through repression by the state or by assassination of those who disagree with religious extremists who are willing and able to kill them.

As a result, many advocates of Modernity within many Islamic societies are cowed by fear, the very real fear that Muslim extremists will kill them for expressing views which the assassins consider to be blasphemous or heretical.

To be sure, the West has passed through historical stages such as the Inquisition in which heresy from Rome was punished by execution, and societies were ruled by terror, often under religious pretexts.

What is different is that in the West the Reformation did occur, successfully, and the diversity of religions in Europe was established as a result of the Reformation, the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648), and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  In the 18th century, the Enlightenment did take place in France and America, and elsewhere, and political liberties including the right to individual religious freedom were established in the constitutions of France and America, and beyond.  Through Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, the principles of the French constitution were enacted throughout Europe, and later Latin America.

Eventually, the ideas enshrined in the the American and French declarations of rights and constitutions of 1787, 1789 and 1791, and even earlier, triumphed not only on paper but also in reality, even if in Europe it took a war against Germany and the Axis Powers including Italy and Japan to consolidate that result through the victory of the Allied Powers in 1945.  The exceptions, of course, were the Soviet Union  and the societies subjugated by the Red Army during and after World War II.

Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, and under the American occupation that followed, these ideas also took root in Japan, and spread to other countries in the region.  When the Berlin wall came down in 1989, the military grip of the Soviet Union over the countries of Eastern Europe was broken, and these societies too joined the community of democratic states in Europe and North America, and in Asia and Latin America, where democracies had also taken hold.

Importantly, at the international level the ideas of the American and French Revolutions, and the earlier English Revolution of 1688, also triumphed.  These ideas were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 with the affirmative and overwhelming vote of almost all countries.

Significantly, however, Saudi Arabia did not vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and religious opposition to the ideas expressed in the Declaration, and subsequently codified in the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966, in force since 1976), did not disappear in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and South Asia.

The core of the cultural battle we now see being played out in “Muslim outrage” over depictions of Muslims or even Mohamed published in the West, the seat of Modernity, under the protection of the right of free speech, epitomizes the fundamental incompatibility of the bedrock values of individual liberties, freedom of religion, and the separation of Church and State which have triumphed in the West, and now much of the world, and the values of fundamentalist and extreme religious groups in Muslim societies today which are in essence opposed to the Enlightenment, the separation of religion and the state, and the protection of fundamental human rights including the equality of women, freedom of religion, and the right to free speech and freedom of the press.

On religious issues, not only fundamentalist and extreme religious groups but also broader portions of Islamic populations oppose freedom of expression, and are susceptible to being persuaded that critics are guilty of blasphemy.

What is different between the West and the societies still struggling in the battle between Modernity and Islamic fundamentalism, is that the West in accordance with its values of tolerance and protection of citizens in the exercise of their fundamental rights grants a zone of freedom to Muslims, including those with extremist views, which Muslims do not always grant to advocates of Modernity–even fellow Muslims–within the borders of Islamic states.

While freedom of expression may be guaranteed in Islamic countries under their constitutions and laws (often modeled in the Middle East, ironically, on those of France), such freedom does not extend to questioning Islam or the Prophet Mohamed, or even to engaging in historical studies of the origins of the religion as is common practice in the West regarding Christianity or Judaism or any other religion.  Even where freedom exists on paper, governments and individual leaders are often cowed by the threat of assassination that always lurks in the shadows when it comes to defending the right of critics of Islam, or even within Islam, to express their views.

That is one reason why even advocates of Modernity within Islamic societies are reluctant to take strong positions against the extremist views of those who, if not placated, may be willing to kill them. We see, for example, that even as Muslim voices are raised in outrage over an amateurish and polemical film made in the West, a “foundation” in Iran has raised the bounty on the head of Salmon Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses (published in England in 1988), with little or no outcry from within the Muslim world.

How can this cultural battle be engaged in a constructive manner?

Framing a Respectful Dialogue

How can these strong cultural and religious differences in values be framed and transformed into a respectful dialogue between two great civilizations?

For those in the West, the most important point is that it is essential that they see and understand clearly that this unlevel playing field exists.

Instead of simply apologizing to Muslim extremists for offending their sensibilities, those in the West should insist on such extremists respecting their sensibilities and activities, and ceasing their insults and crimes against advocates and defenders of Modernity, whether these be from the West or from within their own countries.

An apology may be offered and do relatively little harm within the ambit of the tolerant societies of the West.  But it is often taken as a sign of weakness by extremists who are fundamentally at war with the values of the West and Modernity and, instead of having a calming effect, may in fact goad them on to further hostile actions and attacks.

Moreover, government officials in the West need to think carefully before they “apologize” for the protected speech of others which may be offensive to Muslims, or to other religious groups.  They must be very careful indeed not to give the impression that they are apologizing for the “weakness” of their constitutional guarantees of free speech, for such apologies undermine those guarantees in their own societies and may unintentionally weaken the position of advocates of Modernity within the very societies to which their “apologies” are addressed.

The option of simply not responding should always be considered, as there is no requirement that the governmnet respond to those who are upset by the exercise of free speech within its jurisdiction. Nonetheless, on occasion it may be appropriate for government officials to express “regret” that constitutionally protected free speech has given offense to the followers of this or that religion, and particularly Islam, but even this is a slippery slope and extreme care should be exercised.

How might an “expression of regret” be properly framed by a government official when the exercise of protected free speech by others gives offense to some, or many, Muslims?

In every case where Muslim extremist groups express outrage at an insensitive or deliberately insulting cultural expression disparaging Islam and Muslims, advocates of Modernity should frame the discourse by pointing out similar acts of insensitivity committed by Muslims against Christians and Jews and others, and the lack of public criticisms in Muslim societies of the authors of such actions, even when violent crimes are involved or encouraged.

At the same time, if crimes are being threatened by offended Muslims, advocates of Modernity should forcefully and unequivocally demand that public order be maintained and that all diplomats and foreigners and their property be fully protected by the governments of the countries in which such crimes are threatened or appear likely–or even possible. Only then should an explanation be offered that the offensive acts do not represent the policy of the government or in the official’s opinion the views of the people of his or her country, but that such activity is firmly protected by that country’s constitution and in the constitutions of other countries that embrace the values of the West and Modernity.  Within this framework of explanation, an expression of sincere regret that the sensibilities of Muslims have been offended may be quite appropriate.

An “apology” from the state for the protected speech of others, on the other hand, is not appropriate, because the state is not the author of the action deemed by Muslims to be offensive, and because the state should never apologize for its constitutional protection of free speech and freedom of expression.

To show weakness, to apologize for the protected speech of others without at the same time reaffirming the fundamental liberties which permitted such expression to take place, only plays to the advantage of the extremist groups.  Rather, the moment should be seized not only to express regret over some action deemed “offensive” to Muslims and exploited by extremists in their own war against Modernity and the West, but also to simultaneously assert and defend the fundamental values of the civilization of Modernity and the West which protect expressions which may be offensive to Muslims, or to Christians, or to Jews, or to any other religious sect or group.

Such principled responses will help place the “offense” within the proper context in the struggle over values between Islamic extremists and advocates of Modernity, and ultimately help to reinforce the positions of advocates and defenders of Modernity, both within and outside of Islamic countries.

Whether offensive speech should be treated as consitutionally-protected free speech, or blaphemy, is a question which sums up the essential clash of values.  The societies of the West underwent tremendous upheavals, including the 30 Years’ War and the French Revolution, in sorting out where they stood on these issues.  Where the debates within Islamic societies will come out is uncertain, but the trend has been an evolution toward outcomes similar to those in countries in the rest of the world that have accepted Modernity and embraced the international law of human rights.

In the meantime, when speech or actions offensive to Muslim religious sensibilities lead to unrest and demonstrations, journalists should avoid fanning the flames of controversy by predicting massive reactions, and should in all cases make every effort to accurately report what is happening within the context that gives it meaning. If a thousand people in a Muslim country demonstrate against some speech or act in a country that protects free speech, they should not miss the story that the other 89,999,000 people in the country did not demonstrate.

Tolerance and pluralism are the crowning values of the civilization of Modernity and the West.  Large sectors of the populations in many Muslim countries appreciate these values and are striving to implement them within their own societies.  In responding to the “Muslim outrage” of sincere Muslims who are offended by a particular action (and of extremist groups which whip up such sentiments for their own purposes), or the outrage of any religious or other group, the reaffirmation of these values should hold center place.

The Trenchant Observer

Further reading

Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (Oxford University Press, 1993)

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Giles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Harvard University Press, 2004)

Khaled Abou el Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (Harper Collins, 2005)