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Walking Back the Cairo Apology

The Obama administration is attempting to walk back the damage done by the apology issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for criticisms of Islam made by American citizens. In the wake of condemnations of the embassy’s shocking statement, which seemed to justify the violence that was directed at the United States, administration officials have now said the apology was not vetted by Washington. Responding perhaps to Mitt Romney’s outrage about the apology, last night Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued her own statement in which she also condemned critics of Islam but added, “There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” But with the attacks on posts in both Libya and Cairo now having left four Americans dead and with anti-U.S. rioters acting with impunity, the problem here is bigger than one retracted apology.

But the damage control being performed in Washington isn’t enough to put the administration’s stand in a positive light. If the initial apology resonated around the world it was because it was very much in line with the tone of moral equivalence that was the keynote of President Obama’s speech to the Arab world given in Cairo in June 2009. Having set forth a credo that balanced understanding for grievances against U.S. policies with a desire to conciliate its critics rather than to forthrightly defend America and its allies, the president cannot now be surprised when the instinct of U.S. representatives abroad, and especially those in Cairo, is to apologize first and to be resolute later.

It should be noted that the initial reports about the apology which we noted last night were wrong about its timing. The craven U.S. statement that the administration has now disavowed was issued before and not after the attack on the embassy in Cairo where a mob stormed the compound, tore down and burned the U.S. flag and replaced it with an al Qaeda banner. The embassy later did condemn the “unjustified attack” on its property but said it stood by its apology for those Americans who criticized Islam.

That makes it appear a bit less awful, but for the United States to attempt to conciliate Islamists who are intolerant of any criticism of their faith, even by a small group of extremists on the other side of the world, was clearly a fool’s errand. For it to have done so without defending freedom of speech was intolerable.

The makers of the anti-Muslim film that is supposedly the reason for the violence in Egypt and Libya are being widely condemned. The film, which has reportedly been endorsed by the Rev. Terry Jones, who is famous for burning a Koran, is clearly a provocation. Those who engage in rhetoric designed to promote intolerance are wrong. But given the fact that hate against non-Muslim faiths, especially Judaism, is part of mainstream discourse in the Arab and Muslim worlds and especially in Egypt’s government-owned media, there is no reason for the U.S. to apologize for the actions of a small group of American extremists operating on the margins of our society.

The problem with the Obama administration’s attitude toward the Arab world is that a stance of moral equivalence that posed a false symmetry between the Holocaust and Palestinian grievances against Israel or of an Iranian nuclear threat and past complaints about America’s conduct in the Middle East invites the outrages we witnessed yesterday.

The assault on Americans on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks illustrates the deep-seated paranoia and intolerance on the part of Muslims and Arabs. Theirs is a worldview in which their sensibilities must be guarded at all times and places but that those of Americans and Jews can be abused with impunity.

The Egyptian government of President Mohamed Morsi, which did not act to protect the American embassy, has absorbed the lesson of the president’s Cairo speech. The Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates Egypt, reacted to the attack on the embassy with a call for a further U.S. apology. Given that the United States has rewarded Morsi with debt relief and a commitment to continuing U.S. aid with no conditions attached, why shouldn’t they expect the sort of supine behavior from Americans that the embassy’s initial apology illustrated?

The spirit of apology and appeasement that often characterizes the Obama approach to critics of America breeds the sort of contempt for the United States that was demonstrated yesterday. It will take more than a Washington edict ordering the Cairo embassy to delete its craven tweets and press releases to erase the problem that the president’s own statements has created.