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Turmoil in the Arab world spread to Yemen today as hundreds of protesters stormed the U.S. embassy there. The action comes two days after the American ambassador was killed in Libya and crowds attacked the u-s embassy compound in Cairo. The chaos has been linked to a provocative video that maligns the prophet Mohammed. But u-s officials say attackers at the Benghazi consulate seemed organized and well trained, raising questions about whether there was some level of advance planning. And reaction to the volatile events in Egypt and Libya are spilling over into the u-s presidential race. Diane and guests discuss the turmoil in the Arab world.
- Nancy Youssef Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.
- Robin Wright Journalist, joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
- Nadia Bilbassy Senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV -- Middle East Broadcast Center.
- Ambassador David Mack Former deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state, Near Eastern Affairs (1989-1993).
- Frederic Wehrey Senior associate for the Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama lauded the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, in a tribute at the White House yesterday. Stevens and three other Americans were killed Tuesday night in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. He was the first sitting U.S. ambassador slain in a violent attack since 1979.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about turmoil in the Middle East just weeks before the U.S. presidential election: Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, former U.S. ambassador for Near Eastern Affairs David Mack, Nadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcast TV and Frederic Wehrey with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I'm sure many of you are feeling strongly about these events and will wish to comment. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning, Diane.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning, Diane.
AMB. DAVID MACKGood morning.
MR. FREDERIC WEHREYGood morning.
REHMAnd before we begin our conversation here in the studio, joining us by phone from Cairo, Egypt, is Nancy Youssef. She's Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. Nancy, thanks for joining us.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFMy pleasure.
REHMDo we have anything new on the attack in Cairo, and what are the streets like today?
YOUSSEFWell, it's been volatile here in Cairo. They have spread the protest into Tahrir Square which is near the embassy. What's interesting is that those protesting now are a little bit different than the crowds that were there Tuesday when these demonstrations began, where on Tuesday, the crowds were filled with Islamists and youth.
YOUSSEFToday, there seems to be more youth than Islamists, suggesting that there are some religious groups trying to back away in light of what's happened in Libya, and also because they think there's a lot of mixed feelings here, even in Cairo, about how to react when people are angry about things like the depiction of the prophet in the movie. We are starting to hear some stronger words from President Morsi. He had a phone call with President Obama overnight in the White House readout.
YOUSSEFIt was a very sort of tepid response where the president was grateful to the Libyan president. He seemed to be less so with Morsi, and it seems that President Morsi is trying to respond to that. He was in Brussels today. He condemned the attack, and he is actually on television right now speaking live to the Egyptian population, again condemning the act.
REHMAnd I think Nadia Bilbassy has a question for you.
BILBASSYHi, Nancy. As you know, Justice and Freedom Party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood and is the party of President Morsi, are planning, what do you call, massive demonstrations after the Friday press tomorrow. So everybody's keeping an eye on Tahrir Square tomorrow. How delicate will President Morsi find himself in this kind of situation to deal, at one hand, with his own party and, the second hand -- on the other hand, to deal in -- with his position as the president?
YOUSSEFWell, it's going to be the first real test that -- and it's going to be fascinating because I think one of the reasons that the Islamists came out on Tuesday is because they have an Islamist in the presidency, and that they felt more freedom to act out in the streets without repercussion. President Obama in an interview with Telemundo seemed to suggest that Egypt is not an enemy, and it's not an ally. So it appears that that relationship is starting to change. I think it will be a very fine line for President Morsi to walk.
YOUSSEFSo far, he's certainly shown deference to the Islamists. But vis-à-vis with the United States, there's no threat of the U.S. cutting off aid. So I think in the final analysis, he will try to appease the concerns of the United States. He will offer, and has offered, better security to the embassy. But I think, in his heart of hearts, he believes the movie is wrong, that people should be allowed to demonstrate against it. And I think the way he'll try to strike that balance is to say that people should do so nonviolently.
REHMAll right. Amb. Mack has a question for you.
MACKNancy, how heavy is the Egyptian police presence? Is it the kind of presence that would intimidate any radical faction from moving against the embassy?
YOUSSEFWell, it's funny. On Tuesday, I was out at the embassy, and there were thousands of police, literally wall to wall around the compound, but they did nothing. In fact, I saw one man -- he had a spray can to do graffiti on the wall which had never been graffittied before. And he tested it by spray painting the shield in front of the policeman, and the policeman just shrugged. So there wasn't any effort to confront the protestors, and that changed since then. And we've seen a little bit more.
YOUSSEFBut I don’t think it's on the sort of level that would discourage people from coming out. We are seeing tear gas now which we weren't seen a couple days ago. Tahrir Square is filled with tear gas today. But there isn't a sort of -- it isn't the Egyptian police under Mubarak. It isn't the kind of heavy handedness that we're seeing. The question becomes, is it the function of the new Morsi government and the new relationship that they're trying to former the police or feeling that the protestors should be allowed to demonstrate?
YOUSSEFIt's not quite clear yet or maybe close, I don’t know. But it's gotten -- there's been a greater police presence but certainly not something you would have expected to see before the uprising.
REHMAll right. Robin Wright has a question.
WRIGHTNancy, it's very striking that President Morsi did not say anything even if he felt that there was something objectionable about this film. It took him such a long time to make a comment condemning this action -- and he did it from Europe, not from Cairo -- in stark contrast to what happened in Libya where the president came out very quickly and today in Yemen where, again, the new president has come out and condemned this attack, particularly since it happened on 9/11 in which, you know, there was an Egyptian mastermind involved.
WRIGHTSo what, you know, what's the sense of why he waited so long? He's been wise in taking actions on other key challenges faced in Libya that were really often an American interest as well? Why this time so slow?
YOUSSEFBecause, I think, on a very fundamental level, he believes that people should be protesting the film. I don't think there was any domestic pressure on him to speak up. It seems that he only spoke up when there was international pressure. But, you know, I think -- we have to remember Morsi is an Islamist, and I think for him to have spoken out too soon, it would have seemed that he didn't understand or support of appreciate how imperative it is to Muslims to defend the prophet.
YOUSSEFAnd so, frankly, I think he waited until he had to defend them. You know, in Libya, it's a very different thing. The demographics are very different. A lot of Libyans we're talking to today feel great sense of shame about what's happened. They have an affiliation and affection for the United States. Benghazi was nearly run over by Qaddafi forces a year ago. Here, there isn't that sentiment towards the United States, particularly among the Islamists.
YOUSSEFThere may have been an election here -- a U.S.-backed election here, but it didn't lead to a fundamental change in sentiment towards the Americans. There's still a feeling that Americans are out to attack Islam, to attack their faith, did not serve the interest of the Middle East. And, frankly, many are hoping that this -- what the Arab Spring leads to here in Egypt is an Egypt that is less dependent on the United States.
REHMNancy Youssef, she is Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy News. Thanks for joining us, Nancy.
REHMAnd turning to you, Nadia Bilbassy. At the heart of all these demonstrations is a trailer of a film. Not many people have seen an entire film. We don't even know if it exists. Do we have any idea who produced and funded this video?
BILBASSYThere are so many reports, Diane, so far, indicating that it might be some cops who are involved in it. There is a name of person called Morris Sadek, who I actually interviewed a year ago after he was stripped of his nationality -- Egyptian nationality. He is an American citizen. And apparently, he is promoting this video. This video was produced a year ago in English by a group of people. We don't know who are these people. There is a pseudonym by Sam Bacile. Nobody can track him.
BILBASSYThey said he's Israeli citizen. He might be Jewish. Nobody can ever prove that. So the fact comes back to the -- this movie was -- only took some kind of prominence after it was dubbed into Arabic a few months or maybe a few weeks ago, and this guy, Morris Sadek, put it on his website and also was picked up by Terry Jones, this infamous so-called priest in Florida who burned the Quran. And then an Egyptian television picked up this attack, what's been perceived as an attack against Muslims.
BILBASSYI saw the trailer, by the way. I saw clips of it. It is a pathetic movie. It's not even worth commenting on in terms of the quality of the movie. The actors came today, some of them saying we were duped. We didn't know that actually we were doing...
BILBASSYAbsolutely unaware, and we apologize that this is causing riots and death, et cetera. Now, we're trying to track down who exactly did this movie, but the implication and the ramification goes way beyond a cheap-made movie that meant to inflame sentiments in the Muslim world.
REHMAnd the other question for you, Frederic Wehrey, how are these incidents happening? Where is the protection?
WEHREYWell, I think in the case of Libya -- I was there in July -- this attack is really a symptom of a worsening security climate, a security vacuum, really, that you've seen after the revolution. The police forces and the army disintegrated. The provisional government, the NTC, has been really forced to really upon militias to govern the country. In Benghazi, things were really bad there. I mean, after the successful elections in July, you saw a series of car bombs, assassinations, thwarted car bombs, rocket attacks in Benghazi.
WEHREYThings were getting very bad there. There are militias running around in the open with technical vehicles, with anti-aircraft guns. And you have to remember also, there was a previous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. So there were a lot of indications that this was coming.
REHMFrederic Wehrey, he is with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. When we come back, we'll talk further, take your calls. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. As we discuss events around the world, the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi, the attacks in Yemen, the attacks in Cairo all said to have originated with a YouTube showing of a movie that is insulting to Muhammad. And the question is here in an email from Richard in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Is this movie the prime mover behind the race, or are hardcore anti-American groups using it as an excuse to rouse normally apolitical Muslims to augment their own numbers to make race look like protests?" Amb. Mack.
MACKWell, every one of these countries is going to be a little bit different. I think in the Cairo situation, it may be much more a matter of a -- sort of popular level demonstration against the reports of this movie. But in some other places and Yemen and certainly in Libya, it's clearly -- it wasn't obvious. It was a pretext for some well-organized terrorist groups, extremist in nature, to take this out on the Americans.
MACKThese same groups have attacked Libyan government officials in the past and other foreign nationals, foreign diplomats, Red Cross. And so this was a pretext. And I think it's very easy for us from this point and it's quite natural for people to say, why should we have such a close relationship with this government when it can't protect our diplomats? And I think people have to understand this government, first freely elected governments since 1951, is rather desperately trying to re-establish some central institutions.
MACKWhile these violence was taking place, their parliament was assembling yesterday to elect a prime minister to form a new government. And the man who eventually was elected prime minister, Mustafa Abushagur, the deputy prime minister, had sent out a message just before the parliamentary vote in which he said that there is never any justification for this type of action. There must and will be consequences.
MACKThose who were involved at all levels must be found and punished. So he wasn't afraid of a right-wing Muslim reaction against taking -- making such a strong statement.
WEHREYJust to echo that, I really see the attack in Benghazi as an effort by a very marginal hard-line Islamist faction to really rally or support, as the caller mentioned, that they're using anti-Americanism in somewhat of a desperate attempt to compensate for their own shortcomings. You have to remember in Libya, most Libyans subscribe to a very moderate form of Islam. In the parliamentary elections, they rejected the Islamist.
WEHREYThe Muslim Brotherhood did not do well. The Salafis did not do well. So you have the Salafi movement in Libya under siege, and I really think they're using these attacks on Western targets. They're going after the Sufis, and this latest attack in Benghazi is really a sign of their desperation and marginalization.
REHMNadia Bilbassy, do you believe as the White House has said that these attacks in Benghazi were pre-planned?
BILBASSYI do believe it, Diane. There is no hard evidence to prove it. But I think in the way that we look at the -- what's happening on the ground that these people could not come from nowhere. Heavily armed, they were an assault on the consulate for like six hours. We know the results of what happened. But let us separate what happened in Libya from the rest. What happened in Egypt, I think, was organized by the Salafis, which is a party called Al-Nour (unintelligible) together.
BILBASSYThey were trying to insert themselves into the narration to saying that basically this is a test as much as for an -- seen as an anti-American is a test for President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. And they wanted to see how he's going to react. We had the first test for him was in the Sinai when they were attacked that we talked about before and involvement with the security forces and the attack on them.
BILBASSYAnd now this is the second test for him to see how far he can go. For him, it's a really delicate situation. Number one, it is the right for everybody to demonstrate peacefully. This is why they toppled the dictatorship. This is why got rid of Mubarak. But they have to understand that they have to stop the violence. Democracy does not come with attacking properties especially foreign premises.
REHMRobin Wright, you actually knew Amb. Stevens. Talk about him.
WRIGHTChris was a wonderful diplomat. I've known him since he was -- started out as cub diplomat on the Iran desk at the State Department. And we met each other in many Middle East hellholes. He was always one who tried to get a sense of what was happening on the streets. It wasn't just a matter of him making the diplomatic circuit among the elites, political in-crowd. He really wanted to have a balance of the sense of what was happening. And that was one of his great strengths.
WRIGHTHe was a very self-effacing diplomat who would make fun of his misadventures, but, in fact, he was rapidly becoming one of the savviest of American envoys anywhere in the world. And I think that the amazing thing about Chris is that he was so committed to going back even though he done his quota of hardship tours, two years under Muammar Qaddafi, a year as a liaison with the rebels in Benghazi and now going back.
WRIGHTAnd I was just at his swearing in in May, and he was as enthusiastic as -- he was like a kid in candy store when it came to this post that all of his colleagues thought he was daft to accept.
REHMAnd how did those in power in Libya react to him?
WRIGHTOh, he was deeply loved. And I think he would've been tremendously touched by the fact that there was a demonstration in Benghazi yesterday in his honor. And that there were the young who were holding up sign saying, Chris Stevens was a friend of all Libyans. But, you know, the thing that I think we have to put in perspective when we look at all of these things that have happened so far, and, of course, there's that caveat so far, is that in each country, we're talking about what are very, very small numbers.
WRIGHTIn Cairo, the crowd estimate on the day of the first protest, which was the largest, was 2,000. This is a country with 85 million people. And this is in stark contrast to the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions who turned out in a sustained way during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. In Libya, we're talking about, again, a very small cell of people in a country with 6.5 million people and where Chris and the United States were widely admired for the role they played during the transition.
WRIGHTAnd so as we try to sort through what's happening today, what does it mean for the people in the region, for U.S. foreign policy? What does it mean about the so-called Arab Spring? Was it a disaster? Was it -- is it going to backfire? Were these countries more stable under dictators than they are under these fragile, new governments? We need to put the facts and perspective and not react with emotion.
WRIGHTAnd I think Chris' main message would have been, do not waiver. Continue the course that we were charting in trying help fragile democracies. He would've hoped that the new government engaged in rule of law activities so that whether it was the perpetrators of his death or the trial that's impending for Muammar Qaddafi's son would be just and reflect rule of law in a country rather than the kind of death that met Muammar Qaddafi as he was escaping a sewer pipe when was killed by rebels.
REHMFred, can you talk about who was most likely involved in the attack in Benghazi?
WEHREYIt's quite murky. We know that in Benghazi and other eastern towns in Libya, there are a number of these hard-line Salafi militias that are quite open. I mean, they have their own headquarters. They have their own vehicles. They're well-armed. They have been implicated in other attacks against the Sufis, against the Red Cross, perhaps against officials from the Qaddafi era.
WEHREYAnd there's one group in particular called the Ansar al-Sharia, meaning supporters of Islamic law, that's apparently had vehicles at the scene of the assault. They since come out in a press conference denying their involvement. And, you know, we have to remember they're quite open. They have a headquarters. They have their own Facebook page. There's another more shadowy group that's been talked about called the brigades of the imprisoned martyr Omar Abdel-Rahman that was implicated in another attack against the consulate.
WEHREYWe don't know if this is just a front name. It's is all very, very murky. I think the larger picture to remember here is that the weakness of the state, the weakness of the government, the weakness of the security forces in this part of Libya has allowed these groups to flourish. And what you're seeing, really, is Libyan citizens. They're certainly mad at the perpetrators. They're certainly upset at the culprits. But they're demanding more from their government as well.
REHMAnd speaking of governments, we are in the midst of a U.S. presidential election season, and what has happened in Benghazi, in Cairo, in Yemen has certainly inserted itself into this campaign. What do you make of the responses of both President Obama and candidate Mitt Romney?
BILBASSYWell, we'll start with Gov. Romney. Many people criticize him internally and internationally that this is a moment that Americans should get together. The -- he said the statement before probably he knew about the details in Benghazi. But when you have one of the most celebrated American diplomat and three others who were killed in a grotesque attack on the consulate -- and he hasn't been buried yet -- his body hasn't received the United States -- or hasn't reached yet -- and he start making a political campaign out of it, then I think it raises a question mark about his ability to be the commander in chief.
BILBASSYPresident Obama came. He obviously addressed the crowd from the Rose Garden, and he talked about -- that the attack cannot be condoned. He talked about the safety of Americans. But -- and he also talked about religion, which is really vital. I think this is important point, Diane, that people in the Middle East don't understand the ability of the president to stop anybody from making any statement.
BILBASSYThey don't understand that it's enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the freedom of religion and freedom of expressions, even if that involved hate speech. So if somebody like these people who made this video, the president cannot stop it. So -- but in the same time, I think the implication of it is going to be really huge. It's not yet what we have seen in Sanaa and in Benghazi and in Cairo. It might spread elsewhere to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
BILBASSYAnd the Republicans, in my opinion, might go to portray President Obama as a new President Jimmy Carter and the -- what happened in '79, and he is very weak on -- as a leader, and he's unable to protect American citizens abroad.
MACKWell, just as a generalization, it's really hard to make sound foreign policy during the middle of an election campaign in this country. And I think, given the difficulty of that, one has to give very high marks to both President Obama and Secretary Clinton for the way they have handled this. I think that they have been very, very firm in rejecting the notion that even this film, however repugnant it may have been and whatever bad taste it was, could never be the pretext for this kind of violence.
MACKI think they've been quite firm about that. And I think they're showing a good deal of agility in the way they respond to various places around the world. The other generalization I would make is that it's tempting, but really treacherous, for an opposition candidate to try to make political hay out of a national security issue like this.
REHMAmb. David Mack, former deputy U.S. secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Auburn, N.Y. Good morning, Susan. You're on the air.
SUSANHi. Thank you. I have a comment. I want to say that it's regrettable that the news summaries of this incident always mention the Americans who died and tend to omit mentioning that Libyan security forces put their lives at risk trying to defend the Americans and Libyan guards died defending the U.S. Consulate.
WEHREYThat's absolutely right. I mean, the -- you have to remember, I think, the enormous gratitude that Libyans feel, still, toward the U.S. And, of course, when I was there in July, the Libyans were heavily assisting the U.S. in their diplomatic efforts. They were guarding the embassies. And you're absolutely right. I mean, certainly we have the broader problem of the police and government forces in these cities. But within that compound in Benghazi, around that perimeter, certainly the Libyans rose to the occasion.
REHMBut how was the attack successful?
WEHREYI don't know the specifics. I can tell you that the embassy in Tripoli was a fortress. I compare it to the Green Zone in Iraq. I mean, this was -- and it was much to the frustration of diplomats there. I mean, they were not able to get out. I mean, it was -- they were on lockdown. And certainly in any satellite offices in the consulate, the security will probably be a bit less, and I just don't know how they were able to breach it.
WEHREYAgain, these are well-armed groups with rocket launchers, with technical vehicles. And it appears to be well-coordinated, and they converged on this point with great force.
MACKLet me just give a little bit of perspective on U.S. Embassy security around the world. Before 1983, in the bombing of our embassy in Beirut, most of our embassies were very vulnerable to this kind of terrorism. In fact, in Benghazi -- where, as it happened, I served as principal officer for two years in the early 1970s -- we had had that office burned out after the June 1967, when there were some big riots.
MACKAnd in this case, they had to come in very quickly, put a very small group in there, find some kind of compound. They were years away from having the kind of security standards applied to that Benghazi operation that we do in most places around the world.
WRIGHTWell, from the briefing that the United States gave yesterday, it indicates that it was, in some ways, a simple matter of smoke inhalation, that when you set a fire, the -- it's very difficult, when you're under fire, to escape it. And it looks like Chris died of asphyxiation. And that's -- you know, it's not an issue as much as how many walls you have if you're -- if you can't breathe.
BILBASSYBut still I think a few questions are going to be raised about the security of the consulate because there has been so many talks about these radical groups, extremists, Salafists, as Fred said, existing in eastern Libya. And this country is awash with weapons. It has so much weapons that it was the main challenge for the government. So why on Earth was the consulate was not protected more?
BILBASSYI know there was talk about 40 to 80 people, heavily armed, attacked the embassy, but still at least you should have a barricade not to be able to reach the embassy somehow.
REHMNadia Bilbassy. She is with the Middle East Broadcast Center. When we come back, more of your calls, comments, questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. A few quick emails, one from Esther, "Where is the condemnation of this violence from the American-Muslim community?" Amb. Mack.
MACKWell, it's been across the border. And there was a New York Times story yesterday about this, but it hasn't been heavily covered by the media. But virtually, every Muslim-American organization and Arab-American organization has responded strongly. American Task Force for Palestine had a very warm and affectionate note about Chris Stevens and how much we'll miss him as a real friend for Arab-American cooperation.
REHMAnd here's an email from Karen in Charlotte, "Please explain what was objectionable about the initial statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. I'm not asking for comments on the wisdom of Romney's timing or the accuracy of his accusations. I really just want someone to opine on the embassy statement itself." Robin.
WRIGHTWell, the United States was aware of this video and the potential for something to happen. And the state -- the embassy, without authorization from Washington, had put out something talking about religious tolerance and suggesting that this film was not reflection of American interest. And this -- but the -- one of the things there's a lot of misunderstanding about it is that this cable -- or this statement was put out first. It was not after the uprisings.
WRIGHTIt was really -- or as the protest started. It was -- that was to be the first thing that the state -- the embassy in Cairo did, and then the protest started. The way it was portrayed by Mr. Romney was that this was put out after the protest started, and it was trying to placate the protesters. And that's not the sequence of events.
MACKI don't think we should blame U.S. military commanders or U.S. ambassadors when they put out statements that are intended to try to head off violent actions against their personnel. I think that that is normal. Because in these countries, most people assume that if anything like this could be done, it's because the government is behind it. Because in their countries, nobody produces a film blasting Jesus Christ and Christianity without having government backing for it that you might see it in Iran. You wouldn't see it in any of these other countries.
REHMAll right. To La Porte, Ind. Good morning, Jenny.
JENNYOh, good morning. I would just like to make a quick comment. You know, with all these super PACs and the hidden money in this country, we don't know who's funding what except for a few prime people. And I'm really very suspicious about this film, the timing of it and who really is behind it.
BILBASSYI was discussing, actually, this topic with a friend before we came on air, and he was instating the same point as the caller, basically that can't be coincidental. But I do want...
REHMThese are rumors. They are all floating around.
BILBASSYI don't want to fall into the conspiracy theory, absolutely, but there was talks. Somebody reminded me that actually Newt Gingrich has endorsed or defended rather Terry Jones a while ago when he wanted -- under because he said we have to protect our -- people have the right to express themselves without being intimidated by extremist Muslims. So, I mean, who knows? Still, now, we don't know where this money come from, who made this movie.
BILBASSYAlthough, by the way, I cannot believe that $5 million was spent on it. It looks like very cheaply made by, like, the students in a college somewhere. But, saying that, I still believe now that it's going to be used somehow to portray President Obama again as a weakling that was unable to control events that might spread way beyond our control.
MACKAnd who are sympathetic in Muslims.
WRIGHTWell, one of the things that was very striking about the U.S. response was that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called Pastor Jones in Florida and basically outlined how this put American lives on the line, and asked him to withdraw his support.
REHMWhich he said he would do or not?
WRIGHTHe was non-committal according to U.S. officials in a briefing yesterday. And this is, you know, the tragedy, but it gets back to this heart of conspiracy theories that prevail and sweep the regions so often. That they can't believe that the United States can't get Pastor Jones to at least say, I don't support this film.
REHMFred, why can't we find out where this money has come from and exactly who put it out?
WEHREYI think it's just a matter of the fact that it was so poorly produced. It was an ad hoc efforts. I think there were multiple layers of production. It's -- I think it's murky by design to obscure its...
REHMSo you're telling me there are zero real clues as to who put this out?
WEHREYI -- from what I've seen, it's just so obscured by multiple layers. I don't know.
WRIGHTI would not be surprised if the Justice Department doesn't look at where this comes from and...
REHMThe other hand...
WRIGHT...whether this a hate -- and where -- whether this is a hate crime. There is a course of action that the U.S. can take, has in other cases, and where this might be inappropriate and justifiable way to act.
REHMIs there any indication that the Justice Department is moving on this?
WRIGHTI don't know, but I think that that we'll know soon enough. The fact is the identity of the people behind it is beginning to come out. And I suspect that there will be people, whether it's in Southern California, where he supposedly is based, or in Washington looking at this issue.
MACKWell, I think we have to rely upon the U. S. media to pry out this information because the Justice Department is going to maintain very strict confidentiality until and if they have enough to take some kind of action.
REHMWhat about the fact that a group of Marines are on the way to Benghazi? What are they going to be doing, Fred?
WEHREYThey're going to reinforce security at U.S...
WEHREY…diplomatic facilities. Well, this is the equivalent, really, of a, sort of a SWAT team. And I think they're there both as a deterrence and to fend off, God forbid, if another attack occurs. I'm frankly concerned about a potential overreaction. I think you -- you know, we're very right in our course of action in Libya to not have boots on the ground there. We've sent teams to go after the surface-to-air missiles, but our military presence there is very minimal. It's out of sight. It's at the embassy. We're helping the Libyans reconstitute their army in a very modest way.
WEHREYAnd if we bring the Marines in, what kind of signal does that send to the Salafis, to the radicals, that it's sort of self-confirming that here comes the battle, the imperialists. And I have to really emphasize that Libyans throughout Qaddafi's reign were fed this diet that the outside powers, that the West is out to get you, that they're out to colonize you. They're out to grab your oil. And while Libyans are very thankful for the help in toppling Qaddafi, they've remained a bit suspicious about outside intentions.
MACKYeah, I'd endorse what Fred said. I mean, we have a history of having that military bases in Libya. That's one of the reasons there was a revolution in September 1969. And I don't think these Marines are going to stay there for very long. I think they're primarily going to be in Tripoli. I suspect it may be a while before we have personnel permanently located in Benghazi anymore.
MACKThe Marines may go down there to help that get started, but I don't think they would stay very long because it's not a very effective way of protecting a mission. And there are other kinds of contract forces and so on that you can use that are lower profile and don't have the same negative political connotations.
WRIGHTThe Arab uprisings were all about reclaiming control over their own destinies, and it wasn't just over the dictators. It was over two centuries of Western influence. And the idea that because of security, the United States put more -- puts more of a military presence on the ground will, in the eyes of many people, be seen as a heavy-handed response and that we're trying to re-exert our influence and our ways on them.
WRIGHTAnd one of the things that was so striking about the Libyan model was that NATO was there from the air but never on the ground. And that's why the Libyans believe this was their decision, their actions that were decisive in bringing down their dictator.
REHMHere's an email from Thomas, who says, "I think we need to hear a speech from President Obama emphasizing the American principle of unrestricted freedom of speech. I have heard Libyans, Egyptians and Yemenis who condemn the violence in Benghazi express how confused they are that the U.S. would allow this anti-Muslim video to exist."
BILBASSYI will thank the caller for this. And I will say, if I was an adviser to the State Department, I will mobilize everybody who speaks Arabic or even in English and get them on Arabic television to explain exactly how the system works here and how, under a democracy like the United States, you're allowed to express whatever views that you want and why the people in the Middle East has been fighting the dictatorship, as Robin said, for the same right that this is what they wanted to do. But...
REHMBut Lane sends an email saying, "The real question is, how do we convince new democracies that freedom of expression, including in the arts, is part of what democracy protects no matter how much we individually disagree with that one?"
MACKYou know, I think that's an excellent question.
REHMSo do I.
MACKAnd it gets to the great cultural and historical difference...
MACK...between the United States and most countries around the world, not just the countries in the Middle East. Frankly, I don't think -- I think it'll be a long time before we convince any of these governments, including the ones that are most freely elected, the ones that have the strongest political institutions, that allowing the kind of freedom of speech that we have in this country is something they should do. Frankly, there is an awful lot of countries even in Europe that don't allow this kind of freedom.
REHMSo all in all, how would you say these attacks affect U.S. relations with peoples around the world? Robin.
WRIGHTThis is really a very sensitive moment, and how this plays out in the next weeks will determine a lot about how the United States is viewed, not just in the Arab world or the Islamic world but in the developing world, the majority of the world. And this is where we need to tread very carefully. The idea of going in and using drones, going in and trying to engage in extraterritorial justice, it will be very controversial and revive those images of Gitmo and ignite the passions that we've seen play out in Pakistan and Yemen by -- when suspects have been killed.
WRIGHTThis is a moment where we really need to prove that we want to help people instill the rule of law and be able to carry out those democratic actions that will bring people to justice, be held accountable but let them do it and be the ones to decide their faith, not do it for them.
MACKI couldn't agree more with Robin. Ownership of the Arab Spring by the Arabs themselves is very important. They have this in Libya despite the fact that NATO was involved. The Libyans started it. The Libyans can take credit for it. The Libyans can take -- they own these elections as well, and they're going to own this government. And that's good. In Iraq -- to this day, the Iraqis really do not have the feeling that they owned what happened.
MACKAnd the people who are egging on the administration to get involved militarily in Syria really have -- better think very, very carefully about this. I think in these countries overseas, the Obama administration gets a lot of credit for moving very carefully, for handling each country in a discreet manner, for trying to do it as part of coalitions and cooperation where we can with governments even when they're very imperfect like the Libyan government or the Yemeni government.
REHMTo Winston-Salem, N.C. Adam, thanks for waiting.
ADAMHi. Good morning.
ADAMIt's unthinkable that a murder could become a talking point in a political campaign. But, unfortunately, that's what it looks like Gov. Romney and his, you know, his affiliates have done. With Gov. Romney's comments and actions over the past days, you know, in mind, how can our diplomats and even, you know, American citizens abroad feel secure in a Romney administration?
WRIGHTOh, thanks for that question.
WRIGHTLook, it's sickening that this has become a political issue. And one of the things that’s very striking about the State Department is how most secretaries of state try to navigate between the parties and carry out what is in the broader U.S. interests. And I think it's, you know, in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a sense of healing, bringing people to...
REHMRobin, you mentioned 9/11. Is there any coincidence here?
BILBASSYWell, I mean, certain people think that the fact that Abu Yahya al-Libi, which means the Libyan, one of the top al-Qaida leader who was killed by a U.S. drone a few months back, that what happened in Benghazi was a retaliation for him the fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the first -- the man in-charge of al-Qaida now, came and talked about it.
BILBASSYThere are certain points that are indicating that maybe this attack meant to coincide with 9/11, and this why we're saying what happened in Benghazi is separate than what's happening in Cairo and elsewhere, that it was not spontaneous although the Salafists has been organizing it.
REHMFred, you're shaking your head.
WEHREYIt's possible, but I really see the roots of this much more locally in what's happening in Eastern Libya and Benghazi with the local Salafists, again, going after Western targets to try to increase their relevance, to try to grasp with some cause. And I think that it was a target of opportunity. They saw that these protests were happening elsewhere in the Arab world and Egypt, and they wanted, almost out of the sense of rivalry, to increase their prominence to join in the fray and to sort of upstage the Egyptians in terms of the violence.
REHMThat sounds far-fetched to me. Robin.
WRIGHTLook, one of the things that is of greatest concern to the outside world and to some of the Islamist parties that had been elected since last October is the rise of the Salafists, who were active at the attack at the embassy and may have done some -- been -- had some roles, some relationship with what happened in Benghazi in terms of the demonstration, at least.
WRIGHTAnd these are all to conservatives who want to take people living in the 21st century back to the ways of life during the first three generations after the founding of Islam in the seventh century. They have, in many ways, the kind of philosophy that al-Qaida does even if not always the same tactics. They're willing to work within the system rather than destroy it from outside. The political spectrum in the Middle East is changing, and trying to understand it and deal with it is one of the great challenges the United States faces.
REHMMoving far more quickly than we know. We shall hope that things settle down in the next few days. Thank you all for joining us, Robin Wright, Amb. David Mack, Nadia Bilbassy, and Frederic Wehrey. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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