A Time for Statesmanship

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As anti-American unrest spreads, leaders must remember that all sides have provocateurs. U.S. statesmen should consider legally limiting extremists’ freedom to do real harm.
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There is a small silver lining to the dark cloud that hangs over U.S.-Egypt relations following the failure of the Egyptian police to prevent the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo last week. President Mohamed Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated that they are beginning the transition from opposition to statesmanship. Such statesmanship, in turn, will be required of U.S. leaders in order to recognize the difficulty of the situation Arab governments face and to avoid further inflaming it.

To be sure, Egyptian statesmanship was not in evidence on September 11, 2012, as hundreds of protesters waving black flags and tearing the American stars and stripes to shreds breached the walls of the U.S. embassy. It took President Morsi twenty-seven hours to denounce the assault. But he and his party caught their mistake, and have hurried to make up for lost time. Morsi’s press release last Wednesday night, his somber televised address on Thursday evening, the online posting of Deputy Muslim Brotherhood Guide Khairat al-Shater’s statement of concern for the safety of the American diplomatic mission, all represent an acknowledgement by the Egyptian government and the Brotherhood that their responsibility to protect diplomatic missions is absolute, no matter the circumstances that lead to the threat.

For a new and inexperienced party, thrust quite unexpectedly into the responsibilities of government and facing its first major foreign policy crisis, this response should be seen as a glass half full, not half empty. At least the change in approach is going in the right direction. In other countries, too, signs of responsible reactions to the crisis can be seen. In Libya, for example, a demonstration was organized to protest the sacking of the U.S. consulate and the killing of the ambassador in Benghazi.

The new Egyptian government is in a difficult position. For the first time in its modern history, Egypt is now democratic enough that the government must take public opinion into consideration—a situation both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, should be able to identify with. The country will probably hold parliamentary elections in a few months, and anger is widespread at a deliberately provocative video, “The Innocence of Muslims.” Political opponents of the Morsi administration are already lining up to take advantage of it. Salafis and even secular politicians and members of the old regime are claiming that Morsi should have reacted strongly to the video—in other words, that he should have been ahead of the protesters.

In trying to balance domestic and foreign relations imperatives, Morsi initially put domestic political considerations ahead of statesmanship and stumbled. And he may stumble again as he tries to thread a very fine needle. Washington should be aware of his conundrum and try to help him through it.

Many governments across the Middle East and the Muslim world are facing the same dilemma as Morsi. Radical groups are deliberately fanning the flames of religious sensitivities for their own purposes, but it would be a serious mistake to disregard the genuine resentment of the United States that exists in many countries. That the reaction to the clumsy video spread so far and so quickly indicates it is giving voice to a deep-seated, underlying sentiment. Violence flared up rapidly not only across the Middle East, but even further afield, from Nigeria to Bangladesh. The situation is bound to get worse or at least to remain dangerously tense for a while.

It is the duty of Arab governments to curb the violence and protect the diplomatic missions. But it is equally incumbent on the Obama administration, as well as on Congress and the Romney campaign, to refrain from steps that will make matters worse. In doing their part to defuse tensions, they must also walk a fine line between domestic politics and international statesmanship.

The most important step is to try to bridge the gap between the United States and Arab publics and their governments on the issue of free speech. The gap is partly caused by lack of understanding of the American system in the Arab world. Most Arabs simply do not believe that the U.S. government is powerless to control the media and thus is not behind the video.

But it is also caused by the stance of some in the United States that American values require the defense of an absolute right to free speech. In reality, even in the United States, a country that boasts some of the most robust protections of free speech in the world, those safeguards are not limitless. The U.S. Constitution as currently interpreted makes a distinction between speech that is merely offensive (which is protected) and speech that is deliberately tailored to provoke violence or lawbreaking (which is not). Constitutional scholars differ as to whether the content of “The Innocence of Muslims” and the circumstances of its promotion meet the standards of intent to cause harm and the imminence of the harm that takes place. But this question of American values and law is clearly not open-and-shut, and the debate should be engaged.

While continuing to defend freedom of speech and of the press, and persisting in the long-term task of convincing Arabs that the U.S. government truly does not control the media, American statesmen might consider taking deliberate steps at home. There could well be value in finding legal remedies against speech that is not just hateful, but that is deliberately weaponized to put human lives and U.S. property—not to mention U.S. policies—at risk.

U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world will not improve if the United States hardens its position. Threatening Egypt with a loss of military aid, or withdrawing support for an IMF loan, will make it more difficult for the Morsi government to address the crisis on the domestic front and will only increase anger across the region. Declaring Morsi’s Egypt and its vibrant, diverse, ambitious population unfriendly will not protect the U.S. interests in continuing to play a positive leadership role in a changing world, in maintaining access to oil, or in helping assure Israel’s security.

What will help tamp down this crisis is to recognize that all sides have their provocateurs, ready to exploit opportunities for fanning extremism. It is the job of statesmen, American as well as Egyptian, to find ways, under the law, of placing some limits on the freedom to do harm that is enjoyed by extremists.

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Comments (5)

  • Aaron from Ethnocentrized.com
    No "Constitutional scholar" that I am aware of has argued that the video meets "...the standards of intent to cause harm and the imminence of the harm that takes place." Which ones are you referencing?

    Incitement doesn't apply here as the speaker was not attempting to persuade others to engage in violent acts on his behalf. Fighting words doesn't apply because the video does not meet any standard of direct personal insult.

    I'm really confused as to what legal issue you think actually applies here, and interested to see what Constitutional scholars have argued that this speech is legally proscribed.
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  • 4000 Cathedral Ave NW
    This are thoughtful analyses, but I wonder whether missiles hitting civilians and killing whose families, drone executions, and permitting persecution of Palestinians will not be more important than an offense snippet on YouTube. They watch news out of Quatar, and see murders we don't. When an article about drone executions runs in the NY Times and President Obama is proud of being the man to pull the trigger on men who have not received a trial or chance to present another side to the evidence, our actions are worth a protest.                It is said, Fear was the Berlin wall of the Middle East. Free too express their opinions, they have been explicit.                   We just don't want to hear it.
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  • de Roubaix
    Video which sparked anti-western (not only anti-American) demonstrations has been made months ago and revealed to the Muslim mob only as a justification of murder of American Ambassador, in itself prepared in advance. Any future western sensitivity of Islamic feeling is baseless, if not video or cartoon, something else will be invented to justify outrage. If the West wants to be what it is, it must keep its values intact to any shameful convergence with islamists – we must be aware they are not Muslims they are followers of new political ideology of mob mobilization. It is a shame to see UE Barroso silent when Egyptian PM Morsi was justifying murder of the Ambassador s as a proper revenge to the video – I have not seen any Middle East politician shamed by anti-western, anti Christian, anti Jewish videos, cartoons or deeds.
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  • danny
    1 Recommend
    will the Egyptian statesmen step forward for a peaceful dialogue without bias and be seen to inform the Egyptian nation that d video isn't a deliberate by the US govt to blackmail the Arab world? In Nigerian now for instance the anti western sentiment is growing widely especially in the north with protests against the film. Freedom of 'speech' is inevitable. my way foward is for arab leaders including African leaders to deepen the roots of democracy ( improve the general standard of living of their populace through d aggressive provision of portable water, health care, security, competitive education & transparent judiciary), by so doing emphasis would be more on civil/peaceful protest incase of any democratic infractions rather than relegious, tribal or racial.
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  • MikeBIever
    Though it is relevant to assess the situation in diplomatic "speak" and to be kind to the cause of Egypt, who is to suggest that Morsi's re-assessment of the situation wasn't in whole or in part motivated by the American backlash financial and politically? And to make the suggestion that a video is cause or inherent of enough cause to blame the filmmaker for purposeful, intent to incite violence or cause harm ... that is just an excuse and evidence of the Islamic backwardness that is manifest. We are on dangerous ground when the sentiments of radical, violent, jihadists usurp the values of freedom and expression. In that case, every single movie dealing with murder or criminal violence is subject to the intent of "cause and harm" interpretation. Islam will learn and adapt or it will dwell in darkness.
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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/09/17/time-for-statesmanship/duio

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