The Tragic Optimism of an American Diplomat

Remembering Ambassador Chris Stevens and reflecting on the power of the United States to shape the new Middle East.

In July, in the course of writing a column about Libya, I spoke by telephone with U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, then in Tripoli. Libyans had just gone to the polls to elect a National Assembly, and he was feeling optimistic. The moderate National Forces Alliance had defeated an Islamist coalition, and the Islamists had accepted their defeat. The country was still in the grip of militias, but Stevens said that the security situation was "not bad," and getting better. "The Libyan public attitude to the U.S. is quite positive," Stevens said. "This is a great opportunity for us."

I cannot help wondering, in the wake of Stevens' murder by a mob in Benghazi -- where he had spent months working with the transitional council that served as the political wing of the forces fighting Muammar al-Qaddafi -- if I should understand his optimism about the U.S. role in Libya as a ghastly irony. How many times have I heard American diplomats talk about what the United States was doing or could do or should do, in Egypt and Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world to improve its image? Americans are optimistic by nature, and so are American diplomats. I am, too: I incline toward hopefulness, though perhaps by now experience should have taught me otherwise. At the time, I wrote, "Libyans are generally well disposed towards the United States thanks to the Obama administration's role in the NATO bombing."

From his very first day in office, when he gave an interview to Al-Arabiya and called Arab leaders, President Barack Obama has tried to make gestures, and shape policy, that would change the feelings of people in the Islamic world toward the United States. He delivered his celebrated speech in Cairo in June 2009 in the hopes that by offering a new posture based on "mutual interest and mutual respect" he could end the "cycle of suspicion and discord" governing U.S. relations with Arab publics. Obama's speech sparked a wave of euphoria -- and then, as it became clear that he had offered a new tone of voice but not a new policy on the Palestinian Territories, or on America's autocratic allies, a new wave of disappointment. A third of respondents in Muslim countries viewed Obama positively in 2009; now a quarter do.

So much effort has gone into the campaign to pull the United States from the ditch into which it had sunk in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. The late envoy Richard Holbrooke insisted that U.S. aid to flood-ravaged Pakistan carry the Stars and Stripes in order to ensure that Washington got the credit it deserved among Pakistani citizens. But billions in civilian and military assistance have had the opposite effect. Since 2009, the fraction of Pakistanis who view the United States as an enemy has risen from 64 to 74 percent.

President George W. Bush tried to win Arab publics through democracy promotion; Obama, through deference and respect. Bush made things far worse, but Obama didn't make them much better. Perhaps it's not their fault. Resentment of the United States -- of which the most toxic form is the rage which fuelled the crowds in Libya and Egypt, and before that in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- serves political and psychological purposes that make it very hard to uproot. Blaming the West, and above all the United States, allows leaders to distract attention from their own failings, ordinary citizens to live with their sense of humiliation, and Islamist and anti-Western parties and factions to burnish their "resistance" credentials. Of course, if  that's true, then nothing the United States does matters -- not even using force to help the Libyan people free themselves from their hated dictator, or sending an experienced and dedicated diplomat to prepare the rebels for the burden of governance. Libya is the test case for the belief that Washington can change the way it is seen in the Middle East by doing the right thing.

I am not convinced that the burning of the Benghazi consulate, and even the demonstrations that have followed, show that Stevens and other hopeful folks were deluded. What they show is that a government that does not exercise a monopoly over force cannot stand up to armed extremists eager to exploit religious or nationalist passion. To state the obvious, Stevens was killed not by "Libya" but by a handful of people in a crowd of several hundred. It's unclear whether, as administration officials have reportedly begun to conclude, the violence was premeditated, or whether it was an opportunistic response to the gathering of an angry crowd, but a consensus has begun to form that the attack was carried out by Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group.

So what does "Libya" think? As my colleague Marc Lynch has noted, both Libya's leaders and Libyans taking to social media have condemned the attack unequivocally, and have spoken of their high regard for Stevens. Willliam Lawrence, North Africa director for the International Crisis Group, who is now in Tripoli, says that even Salafist groups have vocally condemned the killing, and Ansar al-Sharia has distanced itself from the rogue elements said to have carried out the violence, inviting Libya's militias to hunt them down and bring them to justice. But in Cairo, Marc points out, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi has been silent about the violence. Egyptian public opinion remains fervently anti-American, and Morsi may fear mounting a public defense of the United States. Libya's leaders had no such restraint.

So, yes, we should stipulate that Obama was almost as naïve as President Bush in believing that he, personally, could bring about a sea change in Arab public opinion. The resentment of the United States is very deeply rooted, and only partly connected to U.S. behavior. But that part matters, and it is not naive to believe that deeds can make a difference. The Arab Spring gave the United States a new chance to do the right thing. It did so in Libya. One of the arguments for more actively siding with the rebels in Syria is that doing so will give the United States standing if and when the rebels triumph.

I don't want to misrepresent my conversation with Stevens. He was much more interested in what the Libyans were doing for themselves than in what the Libyans thought about America. The reason for his optimism was that Libya had gone to the polls and rejected both separatists and Islamists. The Higher National Election Commission had done a creditable job. Ex-rebel leaders forming the new army were open to advice, whether from the United States or the United Nations. For Libyans, he said, the United States was appealing above all as a model for their own country's development.

Libya's National Assembly has just chosen a new prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagur. In the course of the all-day balloting, says Lawrence, "there was a rallying against the prospect of chaos" that swelled support for the moderate candidate Mahmoud Jibril, who lost to Shagur by two votes. Lawrence suggests that the tragedy might serve as a "coming-together moment" for Libya's very fragile democracy. If that turns out to be so, then Chris Stevens will not have died in vain.


Terms of Engagement

Cancer at the Core

The key to ensuring America's long-term national security is something neither Democrats nor Republicans really seem to understand.

With the two political conventions behind us, we now have a clear idea of the difference between the two parties on foreign policy: The Democrats want to talk about it, and the Republicans don't. In fact, the Democrats even want to talk about the fact that the Republicans don't want to talk about it. Did you notice that in his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney never said a word about the vets? Didn't that strike you as, well, un-American? Real Americans cherish and honor the vets. It seems that the core of Democratic foreign policy is ending wars in order to turn soldiers into vets so they can get jobs and health care back home. That, and killing Osama bin Laden. If that monster so much as tries to stage a comeback, President Obama will order him killed again. Mitt Romney wouldn't. He'd be too busy cutting government services to even notice.

That would be a fun debate to have, unless of course Israel launches an attack on Iran, in which case there would actually be something important to argue about. As it is, there will be only one presidential debate on foreign policy, and the rest will revolve around the we're-all-in-this-together v. you-had-a-chance-and-you-blew-it attack lines. The American people don't want to hear about the rest of the world. Polls find that no more than 5 percent of respondents consider "national security" or "terrorism" the most important issue; "war/peace" clocks in at 2 percent. The dead giveaway was former President Bill Clinton's 48-minute lollapalooza on Wednesday night, which included just one throwaway line on foreign policy. Clinton tends to have pretty good instincts on this stuff. It's a dismaying prospect for those of us who had hoped to spend the next two months watching the cut-and-thrust over drone warfare and the New START treaty.

As a public service, therefore, I suggest a reconceptualization of "foreign policy" in such a way as to provoke an actual debate. At the heart of the national security strategy which President Barack Obama promulgated in 2010 is the premise that a nation's capacity to project power is proportional to its underlying economic strength. It is the economy, not the military, that is the "foundation for American leadership" and "the wellspring of American power."

In his 2008 campaign, Obama promised to restore America's global competitiveness. But then, as the economic analyst Matt Miller recently put it in the Financial Times, Obama had to ignore America's creeping economic cancer in order to deal with the heart attack it was suffering when he took office. When the two sides argue over whether Americans are better off today than they were four years ago, they are debating the effectiveness of that emergency treatment. A fair answer would be that Americans are way worse off than they were before the economic crisis hit in President George W. Bush's final year, and way better off than they would have been if Obama hadn't intervened so dramatically with stimulus spending and rescue packages for banks and the car industry.

But the urgency of addressing the short-term problem not only distracted from the long-term one but exacerbated it. Obama added over $1 trillion to the budget deficit by pumping money into the economy and allowing all of the Bush tax cuts to run through the end of 2012. The combination of tax cuts, spending, and the long-term growth of entitlements has pushed the deficit to over $1 trillion; and the cost of financing the deficit, which will grow as the economic expands and interest rates rise, eats up a growing portion of the budget. The net effect is to leave less and less room for the investments Obama would like to make in education, infrastructure, basic research and the like, which, he argued in his speech Thursday night, are central to America's long-term economic prospects.   

There's a good argument that the combination of low tax revenue and high entitlement spending poses as grave a threat to American national security as climate change or nuclear proliferation. A recent study by the nonpartisan group Third Way found that entitlement spending has risen from 14 percent of the federal budget, excluding interest, in 1962, to 47 percent today. As entitlements have gone up, investments have gone down, from about a third of the budget 50 years ago to less than 15 percent today. Absent legislative action, that figure will sink to 5 percent by 2040. In effect, the United States will be spending all its money on debt service, the Pentagon, and entitlements.

A debate over America's long-term competitiveness would, I concede, be something of a dialogue of the deaf, since today's Republicans don't believe in public investment, and insist that the country can achieve sustained and inclusive growth with a government radically smaller, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than that of any other major economy in the world. I'm not sure who's supposed to build all the bridges and airports and electrical grids which elsewhere in the world are being built through public investment, but America is, after all, an exceptional nation. The Republican approach, embodied in vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan's Path To Prosperity, proposes deep cuts in Medicare, the single greatest long-term threat to the budget, but increases defense spending, which now constitutes one half of domestic discretionary spending, and cuts taxes yet further, setting a top income tax rate of 25 percent. This would make the question of investment a moot point, since it would produce in very short order the limited government that Third Way projects for 2040.

So the GOP may not have a stronger case on economic competitiveness than it does on terrorism. But Obama has hardly grasped the nettle either. He has presented himself as a champion of the middle class by embracing Bush's tax cuts for all those earning under $250,000. That may have made sense during the economic crisis, and it certainly plays well politically, but it is simply not a sustainable policy at a time when the baby boom generation is advancing towards retirement. Federal taxes have averaged 18.5 percent of GDP since World War II; you cannot get back to that figure simply by restoring taxes on the rich to Clinton-era levels. Obama also has a cost-containment plan for Medicare, but neither voters nor Democratic leaders want to hear about it, and he avoids the subject in order to concentrate his fire on the Ryan plan. His defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has described the deep cuts in the Pentagon budget triggered by the failed legislative deal of 2011 as "devastating." Right now, Obama is locked in a budget model which severely restricts his choices.

The other day, the New York Times carried a fascinating piece about the Encode Project, a federally financed program which has made striking advances on gene research. The funds come from the National Human Genome Research Project. I noticed that the Obama administration has proposed cutting its $500 million budget by $893,000, while keeping  overall spending for the National Institutes of Health flat. When it comes to gene research, the cancer metaphor is both literal and figurative. Federal support for medical and scientific research both improves the lives of Americans and spurs technological development. Republicans seem to have concluded that federal funding for research is either an unaffordable luxury or an outright waste of money. The Democrats, should they be returned to the White House, will have to re-frame the economic argument to explain to Americans why this and kindred forms of investment are the key to our national security.

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