Given how common attacks on U.S. military and diplomatic personnel have become since the 1970s–the great age of international terrorism–it is a little startling to realize that it has been 33 years since an American ambassador was murdered by terrorists. It makes sense that the last such death–that of Ambassador Adolph Dubs in Afghanistan, on February 14, 1979–occurred in Afghanistan at the dawn of its agony, after a Communist coup but before the Soviet invasion. The year 1979 was, in fact, the year when militant Islam first became a major threat to the West. That was the year of the Iranian hostage crisis, the siege of Mecca, the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and, of course, the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan. That last gave rise to mujahideen groups some of which (e.g., the Haqqani Network) are now fighting American forces. We must hope that the tragic deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and other personnel at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya does not signal yet another era of anti-American attacks in the Middle East–but it might.
At the very least it suggests the uncertainties inherent in the Arab Spring, even in a country such as Libya, where relatively moderate forces have triumphed. The difficulty has been that the government in Tripoli has had trouble asserting its authority and disarming militia groups. Thus it was apparently a radical Islamist militia group that was behind the attack that killed Stevens. Some, no doubt, will take this attack as all the more reason why the U.S. should take a hands-off attitude toward the region. If only we had that luxury. But Libya and its neighbors remain of vital strategic importance for a variety of reasons–not least their oil–and our interests lie in helping the Libyan government to establish its authority. Indeed this latest attack shows just how important it is to step up security assistance–providing everything from weapons to advisers–so that the Libyan government can assert its authority over its own territory.
Similar attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, meanwhile, make clear that the provision of further IMF loans and loan forgiveness by the U.S. must be made conditional on Mohamed Morsi’s government doing more to control Islamist militants. In the longer term, such attacks show the need for the U.S. to do more to aid secular liberal groups in their struggle for power so that the Muslim Brotherhood does not develop a hammerhold on Egypt’s government, which it can then use to whip up hysteria over alleged wrongs done to Islam. Beyond that, the U.S. government must do everything possible–including the unleashing if necessary of Special Operations Forces and covert CIA operatives–to hunt down the perpetrators of the Libyan attack. They must be killed or captured–justice must be done and extremists must know that they will pay a price for killing one of the president’s personal representatives abroad. More broadly, President Obama needs to reconsider his “pivot to the Pacific”: While we do need to build up forces to contain the rise of Chinese power, we cannot safely shift substantial military resources from a region as important or as turbulent as the greater Middle East.
The greatest mistake we could make in this moment of trial would be to appear weak and frightened–an easy mark. It is perfectly proper for the U.S. government to make clear that the actions of amateur film-maker Sam Bacile, who has been quoted saying such revolting things such as “Islam is a cancer,” are in no way reflective of official American policy. But we must also make clear that there is nothing Washington can do to punish or stifle the buffoon, as Morsi demands, because he is exercising his First Amendment rights–and that we will react strongly to attacks on our missions abroad, no matter the justification for those acts.
Looming over the current crisis, of course, is the legacy of Jimmy Carter who went down to defeat in 1980 in no small part because he appeared helpless in the face of attacks on America and our interests in the Middle East. President Obama has a big leg up on Carter–Obama’s commando mission (to kill Osama bin Laden) succeeded while Carter’s mission (to free the hostages in Tehran) failed. But unless Obama shows steely resolve in confronting these latest attacks–which come at the same time as a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations and the possible “unraveling” of Iraq–he may find that foreign policy is not as much an advantage for him in the current campaign season as he had imagined.