On the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, radical Islamists breached the walls of the U.S. embassy compound in Cairo, tore the American flag to shreds, and replaced it with the black flag preferred by al Qaeda, which reads, “There is No God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
The embassy had been warned of protests in advance. Much of the staff was told to stay home. The pretext for the protest was a YouTube video promoting an obscure film, The Innocence of Muslims, that mocks the prophet Muhammad. Larry Schwartz, a communications specialist in the embassy, released a statement before the protesters had assembled, intended to assuage their anger.
It read, in its entirety:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
That statement was the official position of the U.S. government for more than 12 hours.
In the space of three days, then, the administration had gone from seeking to distance the president from the embassy’s statement to embracing the heart of that message. And then it went further. The White House asked YouTube to review its policies to determine whether the offensive video might qualify for removal from the website. It didn’t.
In retrospect, the administration’s effort to hide behind the film should not be surprising.
Barack Obama campaigned as a leader who would bring respect to the United States from the Muslim world by the very fact of his presidency. He said his background—his experience growing up in Indonesia and traveling in Pakistan during college—gave him special insight into the way Muslims see the world.
Candidate Obama contrasted his foreign policy posture with that of the Bush administration by promising to bring a more conciliatory approach to America’s challenges in the region and to resolve our problems with “smart diplomacy.” As president he would renew American leadership in the world with a more humble approach—“leading from behind,” one of his advisers would famously call it.
These were the ideas that animated the Obama Doctrine. Just a few days before, the president had pointed to his approach as a reason for voters to keep him in office. “In a world of new threats and new challenges,” he said, “you can choose leadership that has been tested and proven.”
Tested and proven—to fail.