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Obama administration clueless on Mideast turmoil

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
September 20, 2012 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
Pakistani demonstrators beat an effigy of Florida pastor Terry Jones during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Lahore on Monday, September 24. More than 50 people have died around the world in violence linked to protests against the low-budget movie, which mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, since the first demonstrations erupted on September 11. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/world/photography/index.html'>See more of CNN's best photography</a>. Pakistani demonstrators beat an effigy of Florida pastor Terry Jones during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Lahore on Monday, September 24. More than 50 people have died around the world in violence linked to protests against the low-budget movie, which mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, since the first demonstrations erupted on September 11. See more of CNN's best photography.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Administration blames Mideast, N. Africa violence on anti-Islam film
  • He says there's reason to think attacks were planned for September 11
  • Administration has reacted sheepishly to violence, hasn't defended free speech, he says
  • Bennett: There's a pattern of confusion, weakness in U.S. Mideast policy

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans are dead. Protests are roiling Arab nations, threatening U.S. embassies and diplomats from Egypt to Sudan to Indonesia. The Middle East is on fire, in more ways than one. For more than a week the Obama administration insisted that this was solely a response to the work of an obscure, asinine filmmaker. Now that story is beginning to unravel.

Last Friday, White House press secretary Jay Carney explained the violence in the Middle East: "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."

The administration walked out Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on the Sunday talk shows to offer the administration's view. "What sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful, very offensive video that has offended many people around the world," Rice said.

William Bennett
William Bennett

A group of Muslim extremists kills an American ambassador, in a country this president aided militarily, and our government reacts by utterly failing to defend the protections of our First Amendment.

The reaction of our leadership, including the president, to the bleeding and the slaughter of Americans was not anger, not fury, not a terrible swift sword of justice, but a sheepish response condemning the exercise of our own freedom of speech.

There is a near invincible unwillingness on the part of the Obama administration to acknowledge the presence of radical Islamic jihadists. The video may have had some impact on the protests and violence, but are we to believe our embassy was attacked on the anniversary of September 11, not because of the significance of that day, but solely because of an obscure film released on YouTube? I think not.

Radical Islam is antithetical to the American values of freedom of speech, religion, conscience, and equality, and will use any excuse to provoke attacks against us. In fact, its proponents don't even need an excuse, as the USS Cole bombing and attacks on September 11, 2001, proved. By blaming the recent attacks on a movie, the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge this serious danger, while at the same time blaming our own First Amendment.

Now their explanation is crumbling. On CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Mohamed al-Magariaf, president of Libya's parliament, was one of the first to pronounce the attacks premeditated. He said, "The way these perpetrators acted, and moved, and their choosing the specific date for this so-called demonstration, I think we have no, this leaves us with no doubt that this was preplanned, determined."

During a Senate hearing Wednesday, Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was the first administration official to admit we were purposely attacked. "Yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy," Olsen said. He also repeated the administration's insistence that the attacks weren't planned, but said it "appears that individuals who were certainly well armed seized on the opportunity presented as the events unfolded that evening and into the morning of September 12."

Stevens worried about al Qaeda hit list
Concern over Libya ambassador's security
Why the film upset so many Muslims
Marc Ginsberg on Islamic extremists
Anti-Islamic filmmaker exposed

Will the rest of the administration now stand by its original story?

If a small, obscure, tasteless film is solely responsible for the anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, then American foreign policy is at the mercy of any provocateur with a pen or a camera. Rice went so far as to say Sunday, "As we've seen in the past with things like 'Satanic Verses,' with the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, there have been such things that have sparked outrage and anger, and this has been the proximate cause of what we've seen last week."

Let's suppose for argument's sake that the movie is solely to blame. Why then is the Obama administration cooperating with Hollywood for the soon-to-be blockbuster flick about the killing of Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty," which will have exponentially more exposure and publicity than the paltry YouTube video in question? Undoubtedly this film will anger many Muslims, like those who shouted, "Obama, Obama, we are all Osama" outside the embassy in Cairo on September 11.

The Obama administration's foreign policy in the Middle East is one of appeasement, contradictions, and fecklessness. Or is this what "leading from behind" looks like?

Is Egypt, once a most vital ally in the region, still an ally or not? The President doesn't know. Why did the U.S. intervene in Egypt and Libya but not in Syria or Iran, where the threat to U.S. security is much graver? We don't know.

Why was there not heightened security at our embassies on the anniversary of September 11? Will there be retribution for the death of an American ambassador? It seems that the only retribution leveled will be against filmmakers and cartoonists, not jihadists.

After all, Obama promised a new dawn of U.S.-Arab relations, culminating in his much ballyhooed Cairo speech in 2009: "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect." We have, today, not a new beginning, but flashes of an ugly past, a past reminiscent of the Carter years. Here is Mitt Romney's Reagan moment if he can seize it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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