With anti-American demonstrations exploding across the Muslim world, the White House is insisting that the deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya and violent protests targeting U.S. facilities in Egypt and several other countries are entirely the result of an anti-Islamic video on YouTube.
“This is a fairly volatile situation and it is in response not to United States policy, not to obviously the administration, not to the American people,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday. “It is in response to a video, a film that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it, but this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.”
Questioned at length about the causes of the anti-American violence, Carney insisted it was all about the movie. “The reason why there is unrest is because of the film,” he said at one point. “This is in response to the film.” At another moment, he said, “The cause of the unrest was a video.” At yet another, “These protests were in reaction to a video that had spread to the region.”
Despite Carney’s confident assertions, it became clear in the briefing that the administration does not really know that the most serious incident by far, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, was in fact the result of the video. (And it’s not at all clear that a full-length version of the film actually exists.) When ABC’s Jake Tapper pressed Carney on whether the Benghazi attack specifically was sparked by the movie, Carney responded, “We don’t know otherwise.”
It is one thing to say an event was caused by factor A, and it is another to say that you don’t know that the event was not caused by factor A. And the latter is the White House position on whether the video caused the Benghazi attack.
Tapper was skeptical. “The group around the Benghazi post was well armed,” he said. “It was a well-coordinated attack. Do you think it was a spontaneous protest against a movie?”
“Look, this is obviously under investigation,” Carney said.
Why would the White House heap blame on the movie — indeed, insist that it is the sole cause of the violence — when officials don’t actually know that to be true? There are, perhaps, two reasons. One is that the administration has put an enormous amount of faith in the idea that Arab Spring uprisings will lead to democracy in much of the Middle East. Current events suggest that faith might be misplaced. For the administration, blaming the movie is easier than admitting they were wrong about something so big and important.
The second reason is that Barack Obama has based much of his approach to Middle Eastern affairs on what he perceives as his own unique ability to reach out to Muslims. The entire point of the president’s June 2009 speech to the Muslim world, delivered in Cairo — the same city where protesters are condemning the United States today — was that Obama’s life story allowed him to understand the Muslim experience in a way that previous American leaders could not. The fact that he spent part of his childhood in a Muslim country (Indonesia) and had many family members who were Muslim, the president apparently believed, would make many previously hostile Muslims somehow like the United States more.
It didn’t. So now, with anger at the U.S. burning throughout the region — and showing on Americans’ wide-screen TVs — it’s easier for the administration to blame the movie than to admit the president’s personal initiative failed.
Looking at his time in office, Obama judges himself on what he believes is his ability to connect with the world. “One of the proudest things of my three years in office is helping to restore a sense of respect for America around the world,” he told a star-studded fundraiser in Los Angeles last February. “A belief that we are not just defined by the size of our military…but we’re also defined by our values, and our respect for rule of law, and our willingness to help countries in need. We’ve got to preserve that, and we’ve got to build on that.”
Events in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere are not cooperating with Obama’s vision. Must be the movie.