Forgive President Obama if he seemed a bit shell-shocked during his brief statement Wednesday on the murderous attack against an American consulate in Libya. In June 2009, he had grand plans for harmony between East and West. In a celebrated speech delivered in Cairo, Obama spoke earnestly about the need for the West and the Muslim world to look past old hostilities and suspicions.
And then on Tuesday night, his grand vision came crashing down.
Before the deadly attack in Benghazi, in which the American ambassador and three others were killed, there was another attack in Cairo. That one could well serve as a microcosm of Obama's broader dealings in the Middle East. Just before a mob attacked the U.S. Embassy there, the diplomats took to Twitter to "condemn" a group of private American citizens who had created an offensive online film about the prophet Muhammad. (The film was the pretext for the rioting). "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims," they tweeted. And so, after a painful and futile decade of spreading "democracy" and "freedom" by force in the Islamic world, American civil servants sacrificed the First Amendment in an attempt to appease an angry mob.
Naturally, these apologies (which the administration later disowned) did nothing to prevent the attack that followed or to make the embassy's occupants safer. Rioters desecrated the American flag, replaced it with a black Islamic flag used by al Qaeda, and, according to Cairo's daily Al-Ahram, chanted: "Obama, Obama, there are still a billion Osamas."
The lesson from that small (and unlike in Libya, bloodless) incident applies to Obama's entire foreign policy vision: Whatever foreign policy you want to adopt, groveling is no way to bring it about. And that explains why Obama has accomplished so little.
When he laid out his vision in Cairo, Obama spoke of himself as uniquely qualified to bring about rapprochement. "I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed," he said. "That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't."
With his expertise in hand, Obama made the generous promise that he would close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. He promised to fight negative stereotypes of Islam and made as many flattering statements about Islam and Muslims as possible. A month later, he introduced a Middle East policy that -- to use his word -- put "daylight" between the United States and Israel in order to increase "our credibility with the Arab states." Obama even changed NASA's mission, according to the agency's director, so that it would focus "foremost" on boosting Muslims' self-esteem about their historical scientific accomplishments.
On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, Americans have seen what all this has accomplished: exactly nothing. Despite his promises, and all of his promise as an American president with family ties to the Islamic faith, Obama has utterly failed to change the Muslim world. He has done nothing to alter Arabs' and Muslims' negative views of Americans. He has made no progress whatsoever toward peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
There is nothing wrong with a president mouthing sweet nothings to the Islamic world. But there also comes a point when Americans must recognize them for the nothings they are.