The violence and protests that have erupted across the Muslim world rocked even harder an unstable region with shaky U.S. relations.
Last week, militants in Benghazi, Libya, opened fire on the U.S. Consulate as demonstrators protested a film made in the U.S. that mocks the prophet Muhammad. In a matter of hours, four were dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen were also attacked.
Since, anti-U.S. protests have continued to spread, leaving the U.S. government and leaders abroad scrambling to quell them before they turn worse.
GW Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Nathan Brown and former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Jordan and Australia and GW Professor Edward W. “Skip” Gnehm Jr., B.A. ’66/M.A. ’68, recently discussed the Obama administration’s response to the violence, instability and U.S. relations in the region and the political implications back home.
Q: Can you comment on the Obama administration’s immediate response in the aftermath of the attacks in Libya and Egypt, and continued protests across the region?
Amb. Gnehm: The administration has largely done exactly what it should do in this situation. The government had nothing to do with that film. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been most eloquent about it—it’s reprehensible. But on the other hand, we live in a system where people have the right to voice their opinions. While the U.S. government has come out very strongly in explaining its position on the film, I don’t think many people in the streets in the Middle East understand that very well. For them, religion looms so large that the fact that somebody would make something like the film is beyond their comprehension and feels like an attack on them and their religion.
Dr. Brown: The Obama administration is clearly sending a message to the Egyptian regime that the relations between the two countries will be affected by the latter’s reaction to this crisis. It is clearly happier with the official Libyan response, even though the incident there was far more serious.
Q: What do these incidents tell us about governments in the Muslim world?
Amb. Gnehm: I think you’re seeing a number of governments getting their arms around this, and I think it’s quite instructive for us if we watch what’s happened in Egypt with President Mohamed Morsi himself, who is accused of having been weak in his initial response by focusing on the film and hardly mentioning the violence. What we’re seeing is a new group of people in power in Cairo confronted with a crisis. Morsi thought first of his own electorate when referring to the film. But now he sees that he needs to be far more responsible in condemning the violence, more of what you would expect a government response to be.
Q: Currently, it appears militants used the film protest as an opportunity to attack in Libya. Can you comment on this tactic?
Amb. Gnehm: Religion is very important. You will always have opponents of the government, opponents of America, and they will use these types of situations for their own gain.
An armed group—and I would call them terrorists—in Libya appears to have used the demonstration against the film as a cover to attack the U.S. Consulate. Demonstrators don’t arrive at a consulate with rocket-propelled grenades. They’ll have sticks and stones and maybe some guns, but they don’t tend to come with RPGs.
Q: Would you say relations with one country in particular are important right now?
Amb. Gnehm: Egypt is definitely important. It’s in transition. It’s a hugely important country in the region—size-wise, geography-wise, history-wise. It’s very important that we have a solid working relationship with whoever is leading Egypt. And I think we can. But it will take patience, and it will take us understanding that they are going through a learning experience.
Dr. Brown: The stakes in Egypt are higher than those in Libya: It is a much larger and more influential country with a long history of (sometimes rocky) coordination with the U.S.
At this point, however, there seems to be more continuity than change in the U.S. reaction. The past year has seen the U.S. construct a new policy in Egypt that is based on acceptance of a strong role for the Muslim Brotherhood in governance if that is what elections produce. There is clear annoyance with the tone, speed and content of the reaction of the Brotherhood and Morsi, who is from the Brotherhood. But annoyance has not yet turned into reevaluation.
Q: What is going to happen in this region over the next couple of years?
Amb. Gnehm: This is a region that’s really quite fragile right now because of the so-called Arab Spring, or the anticipation of people who succeeded in several nations to topple regimes. We all knew things wouldn’t get better overnight. Creating jobs and rebuilding an economy are going to take time. We’re in a period in which frustrations are high. There are still some very important unresolved issues—in Syria, Iraq, Yemen—where there’s still violence and trouble. And Jordan sits on the edge. Many things could set off a conflagration or something more serious than what we’re even dealing with now. But I believe the current violence and protests will dissipate over a period of time.
Q: And beyond that?
Amb. Gnehm: We’re not sure where it’s all going to go. Anyone who tells you they know is just being speculative or opportunistic. And it’s going to be different depending on the country. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood in one country may find it easier to compromise than its counterpart in another country.
Q: Broadly, what do you think about the U.S. government’s relations with religious groups in the Muslim world?
Amb. Gnehm: As I’ve often said in my few years here at GW, the U.S. government hasn’t traditionally been very good at reaching out to religious segments of society in the Middle East, partly driven by our strong belief in separation of church and state. There, you can’t take Islam out of life and out of government. When segments of the population tended to be negative on America, the reaction here was, ‘OK, then, they’re opponents and we have to control them or do something to keep them out of government.’ That wasn’t exactly the right way to go.
There’s also criticism that the administration is appeasing Islamists or kowtowing. I don’t think that’s true at all. They’ve won elections, they’re in government. They’re actually trying to acclimate themselves to a new role. It means compromising and changing some of the positions they’ve held before.
Q: What did you make of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s statement that the Obama administration was “disgraceful” to first “sympathize with those who waged the attacks”?
Amb. Gnehm: Frankly, I believe that Romney’s remark was irresponsible. He gave it before he had all the facts. What the embassy in Cairo said [that it condemns efforts to offend Muslims] is perfectly appropriate. In fact, I don’t think the White House should have distanced itself from it. The statement was issued four hours before there was trouble and was aimed at dissipating emotions. The two things the embassy mentioned were that while we find religious attacks reprehensible, we have to recognize that the filmmakers had the right to express themselves. These are two core principles of ours, they’re valid. And those words—or words quite similar—have been used innumerable times in embassies around the world in these types of situations.
Q: Will these incidents affect voters at home come Election Day?
Amb. Gnehm: I doubt it. Historically, when we had a war going on—Vietnam, Iraq—you had a public focused on international affairs. I don’t think it will be true in this case. The assassination and loss of life is a terrible and dramatic occurrence, and it’s going to produce intense and emotional reactions. They will fade much faster domestically than they will in the Middle East region.
Dr. Brown: The Obama administration took a domestic political risk with its Egypt policy because any Islamist movement is likely to be suspect in many Americans’ eyes. Its approach did have some support from some circles in the Republican Party, but an American presidential campaign is hardly the time to expect bipartisanship.
Q: Amb. Gnehm, given your experience in government positions, what can you tell us about what it’s like to be involved in situations like that which occurred in Libya?
Amb. Gnehm: I was director general at the State Department during the deadly 1998 bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. I was out there within days, literally walking through the rubble. I’m very conscious of how many of our people work in what are really difficult and potentially violent situations today. It’s far more dangerous today than 10 years ago, 20 years ago. And people are very dedicated. I knew Chris [the U.S. ambassador to Libya] well; he was a terrifically nice person. He was one who wouldn’t think of the risks. He would get in the car to go wherever he needed to go, see whatever he needed to see, to promote what he thought was the right thing for us to be doing