Following in Chris Stevens’s Footsteps

The Middle East has a propensity for producing both the tragic and the absurd, two qualities that converged in appallingly consummate fashion with the attacks this week that killed U.S. diplomats in Libya and threatened American embassies across the region.

The deaths of Christopher Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his colleagues at the American consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday represent a profound tragedy on many levels. First and foremost is the loss of such brave and dedicated individuals, who served their country in a place wracked by chaos, uncertainty, and violence. Stevens had a well-deserved reputation as a diplomat with a rare understanding for this complicated region, but in the tributes to his valor, let those who died with him—and the thousands of others who have served alongside them—not be forgotten. Their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country reflects their commitment to making the world a better place, something that those who would do them harm lack the capacity to recognize, much less achieve.

However, violence in the Middle East has struck a chord across the country even more profound than that of mere personal loss. For many, the attacks renew the sense of disbelief at the breadth and depth of the hatred that endures toward America in various corners of the world, particularly and most painfully in the Middle East. Americans have seen this all before—frenzied mobs swarming our embassies, our symbols and civilians attacked, the most powerful nation in the history of the world made vulnerable before lunatics claiming divine legitimacy. To see this sordid spectacle repeated in a country whose revolution had been facilitated by the United States and its allies seems to add insult to injury. To indulge and foment such depravity on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks should be unimaginable.

Compounding the sense of futility is the apparent link between this week’s turmoil and the snippets of an obscure movie, made by unknowns for some unimaginable—but clearly unconstructive—purpose. The movie offers a lurid depiction of the life of the Prophet Mohammad, whose mere image is considered sacrilegious to Muslims. One can debate the merits of previous artistic provocations, such as Salman Rushdie’s brilliant Satanic Verses or the deliberately incendiary Danish cartoons; both portrayed Mohammad in ways considered insulting and improper and were exploited by demagogues to stoke bloodshed. However, the few minutes from this film, available on YouTube earlier this week, were unequivocally asinine irrespective of their substance—a campy, amateurish production that couldn’t even pass for a Saturday Night Live parody. It seems surreal that such trivial garbage could incite the wrath that is continuing to erupt in cities across the Arab world, in the very same capitals that only months ago rallied for human rights and democracy.

Of course, it is not nearly so simple—nothing ever is in the Middle East. The rampages are seldom spontaneous; the furies are almost always instigated and coordinated by resourceful contenders to power who seek advantage in instability and anti-Americanism. These agents of unrest twist reality and misuse history in the service of a self-interested agenda, to destroy because they offer nothing upon which to build. U.S. officials have suggested that the events in Benghazi may have been something else entirely: a carefully planned operation against an American target by well-armed extremists that unfolded inadvertently or opportunistically against a backdrop of the commotion over this incoherent film. If early intuition in fact proves to be correct, it would offer the most ominous implication for the future of the region and American interests around the world: Despite Washington’s achievements in the war on terror, the current environment of sectarian contention is intensifying, and al-Qaeda and its ilk are devolving.

This week’s terrible events in the Middle East offer a stark reminder of the region’s enduring realities—senseless violence, religiously fomented radicalism, and the enduring threat of terrorism against Americans and the West more broadly. Much has changed across the Middle East over the course of the past two years since the peaceful revolutions that brought down two long-standing autocracies and guided Arab citizens to the forefront of their own destinies for the first time in modern history. At the same time, much has not changed—or, more accurately, much remains caught in the throes of the epic transition that is under way but very much unfinished. The U.S. diplomats and security personnel who died this week in Libya understood that and were immersed firsthand in an effort to ensure that the budding movement to build viable states and representative governments succeeded. The process of consolidating representative rule in Egypt and Libya remains incomplete, and the struggle for predominance among the various contenders to power will buffet their government’s capacity and future course. Washington cannot dictate a secure democratic outcome, but the United States can and must play a central role in cultivating states that respect their neighbors and the quest for freedom that motivated their revolutions.

Their deaths have now become fodder for the American election debate, through the indecent opportunism of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney’s initial instinct to use this awful episode to criticize Barack Obama has been pilloried by his own party as well as many others. But even some Republicans who criticized Romney’s flat-footed foray into this arena found evidence of the current administration’s failings in the tragedy. “In the heat of the battle you get all kinds of advice and all kinds of second-guessing,” Senator John McCain said today. “The fact is the United States in the Middle East is weak … and we are paying the price for that weakness. There is a lack of leadership there, and that’s what I would be talking about and I hope that Mitt Romney will be looking at the big picture.”

It is surely right to have an informed debate about U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and serious people can differ over the approaches adopted by the Obama administration to tough issues such as Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. Still, the Republican suggestion that the deaths of Americans in Libya are the consequence of the weakness conveyed by an American president who used force to help liberate Libya fails as much for its logic as tasteless timing. Thus far, the administration’s tough but temperate statements and efforts to work with regional leaders to curtail violence and adopt responsible policies offers a better prospect for success than any bluster or swaggering show of force.  

For a moment, if not longer, Washington should take its cues from Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and their colleague who also lost his life in Benghazi this week, as well as the thousands of other diplomats, security officers, servicemen and women, and civilian staffers who are on the front lines of U.S. efforts in the Middle East every day. They do the real work of advancing American interests around the world, something that cheap partisan rhetoric can never appreciate nor approximate.