The notion that American power can be counted on to deliver American-style freedom is particularly wrongheaded when applied to the Muslim world. The problem is not that Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, or Pakistanis have an aversion to freedom. On the contrary, they’ve provided abundant evidence that they hunger for it. Rather, the problem is that 21st-century Muslims don’t necessarily buy America’s 21st-century definition of the term—a definition increasingly devoid of moral content. Instead, the varied inhabitants of a dauntingly complex Islamic world want to decide for themselves what the exercise of freedom should entail. Many of them believe it should consist of something more than individual autonomy and conspicuous consumption.
What they are demanding, in short, is their collective right to self-determination. That desire has made them seem stubbornly unreceptive to outside tutelage, and painfully sensitive to perceived expressions of disrespect, no matter how insignificant the source—even in the form of a preposterously bad film made by some demented jackass. Insults directed at the Prophet Mohammad are going to provoke a hostile response among the world’s Muslims, much as Christians once reacted to the heresies propounded by those who dared to question the doctrines and prerogatives of the Holy Roman Church. Back then, defying the pope could land you in serious trouble.
The problem with the foreign-policy tradition to which Secretary Clinton adheres (...) is that it refuses to allow Muslims to set their own course. In fact, U.S. foreign policy is fundamentally incapable of permitting it. For Washington simply to step aside, letting Libyans and Egyptians work out their own problems in their own way, would imperil certain moderately important American interests. More important, it would imply giving up the illusion that the United States models freedom in its truest form and that it can identify and direct history’s course. In effect, it would concede the limitations of American power and American perspicacity.
This country’s political class is unwilling to make any such concessions. That much is obvious to anyone who bothered to watch the twin celebrations of American exceptionalism that constituted the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Several commentators noted the paucity of attention given by either party to the war in Afghanistan, now approaching its 11th anniversary with victory nowhere in sight. With even greater justification they might have noted the two parties’ reticence regarding the even more disastrous and utterly unnecessary Iraq War. Seldom has the American propensity for turning away from unpleasant facts been more vividly and irresponsibly displayed. This avoidance testifies to a refusal to learn.