Yemeni protesters burn a US flag during a demonstration at a street leading to the US embassy in Sanaa on Sept. 14, 2012.(Mohammed Huwas/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni protesters burn a US flag during a demonstration at a street leading to the US embassy in Sanaa on Sept. 14, 2012.
(Mohammed Huwas/AFP/Getty Images)

‘How Could This Happen?’

Humiliation in Cairo and death in Benghazi shook America. But our response has been even more terrifying.
 

It was a mortifying week. We watched angry crowds protesting outside of American outposts throughout the Middle East and beyond. Violent mobs chanted, “We are all Osama.” Structures were defaced or burned. Islamic banners were hoisted where American flags once flew.

Americans were trying to focus on preparing for a presidential election—and we got handed a new mini-9/11.

In the week after September 11 this year, Muslim anti-Western violence hit nearly 30 countries, killing about 30 people. Especially in the Middle East and North Africa, we witnessed a meltdown of order in country after country. It felt like the world was unraveling.

This explosion of unrest sent a chilling message. For the past four years, the Obama administration has worked hard to reach out to the Muslim world—wishing Muslims a happy Ramadan; embracing the Muslim Brotherhood; apologizing for things America did in the Middle East to defend against the Soviets half a century ago; criticizing America’s response to the Twin Towers falling. When the Arab Spring began last year, the White House embraced it, praising and supporting the empowerment of the Muslim street.

September 2012 proved that strategy a failure.

Cairo and Benghazi

In two countries in particular, the attacks were especially vicious—and stung America the worst.

It started in Egypt—and on the anniversary of 9/11 no less. An angry, armed group of about 2,000 Egyptians surrounded the American Embassy in Cairo, breached the compound, yanked down the American flag, ripped it and burned it, then raised a black flag bearing these words in Arabic: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.”

But that horrific affront was not the worst thing to happen that day. Six hundred miles away in Benghazi, Libya, a group of over a hundred heavily armed terrorists stormed the American consulate after nightfall. They fired rocket-propelled grenades and set it ablaze, attacked a nearby cia safehouse with guns and mortars, and killed a highly respected ambassador and three other Americans.

In Egypt and Libya. Just last year, President Obama threw his weight behind uprisings in these exact countries to help the people topple long-standing dictators Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qadhafi. Washington brimmed with optimism for the future of these “liberated” peoples.

The back-to-back attacks—the first assaults on American diplomatic facilities in either country—shattered those illusory hopes. They highlighted the stark reality that “liberating” these nations had created a dangerous vacuum and unleashed some violent, unpredictable forces.

German newspaper Die Welt ran the headline: “U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy is in ruins.”

“[N]ow parts of the freed societies are turning against the country that helped bring them into being,” the article said. “Anti-Americanism in the Arab world has even increased to levels greater than in the Bush era. It’s a bitter outcome for Obama.” Indeed.

Amazingly, though, this isn’t the way the Obama administration viewed these events at all. It immediately and vociferously promoted a completely different reading of what had happened, and of the state of the Middle East and North Africa.

If the attacks themselves didn’t illustrate the failure of American policy vividly enough, the official interpretation made it far worse.

How Could This Happen?

“Today, many Americans are asking—indeed, I asked myself—how could this happen?” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the day after the murders in Libya. “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”

It’s an excellent question—one that deserves to be answered honestly.

Strong clues lie in the events that led up to the previous Libyan government’s fall. For seven months, a U.S.-led bombing campaign smashed Qadhafi’s forces. This bombardment raining down from above allowed the Islamists on the ground to go on the offensive. They rounded up Qadhafi loyalists, including many civilians, and conducted mass beatings and killings. The United States turned a blind eye to these atrocities. Then, Libya’s rebel forces got hold of Colonel Qadhafi. They proceeded to sodomize him and parade his beaten and bloodied body through the streets of Sirte en route to his public execution. The dictator’s lynching was recorded and distributed worldwide via YouTube.

But instead of pausing to reassess its strategic alliance with these so-called liberators of Libya, the United States just laughed off the grisly killing. “We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary Clinton joked during an interview with cbs. In other words, why should Libya’s “freedom” march be hindered by a messy war crimes investigation? The tyrant may have been brutally beaten, sexually assaulted and shot dead—but Libya was now on the road to full democracy! President Obama said Qadhafi’s death marked the end of a long and painful chapter in Libya. He said the people in the “new and democratic Libya” now had a chance to determine their own destiny.

This is what the leaders of the United States of America were saying about the new Libya in October 2011.

But what was the Trumpet saying? That same month, in the October 2011 cover story, editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote this: “Now America and the West have paved the way for another Iranian victory in Libya. We are rejoicing about the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, while we should be mourning. Libyan chaos is now the ideal setting for Iran to bring that nation into its deadly terrorist web. The government that replaces Qadhafi will be a thousand times worse” (emphasis added throughout).

The signs were there. Really, is what happened on 9/11 such a shock? How couldn’t this happen?

Essentially the same story played out in Egypt. When public protests broke out against the rule of Mubarak—America’s longtime ally—the Obama administration took their side. Mubarak responded to the pressure with a warning: “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now.” He feared that the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular Islamist organization he had suppressed for decades, would take over. President Obama ignored the warning. His administration celebrated Mubarak’s fall as a victory for freedom and democracy, a model of a “peaceful” transition away from dictatorship. He even took some of the credit, praising America’s instrumental support for the opposition. “I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history,” he boasted.

Once again, the Trumpet had a far different view. “For three decades, [Mubarak] just about single-handedly held Egypt’s forces of religious extremism and anti-Israelism in check. Now … those forces have driven him from office,” we wrote in our April 2011 cover story. “Time will soon show: Egypt, the Middle East, and the world are far more perilous for it.” Six months later, in that same October 2011 story, Mr. Flurry wrote, “The end result is going to be that we exchanged Mubarak and ‘the only successful Middle East peace treaty’ [the one between Egypt and Israel] for the Muslim Brotherhood—allied with Iran. … It shows that Egypt is already allying itself with Iran in its bloody terrorist war. This has the potential to cause the Middle East to explode and drag all the Earth’s inhabitants into World War iii!”

Sure enough, soon after Mubarak was gone, the Brotherhood rose, and grisly signs of its radicalism emerged. Now Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is effectively dead; the most powerful Arab country in the Middle East is rapidly forging a fresh alliance with Iran. And the mobs on the streets are flying an Islamist flag at the American embassy.

How could this happen? Well, again—how couldn’t it?

However, to an American administration intoxicated with the notion that Muslim radicals can be won over with politeness, this came out of nowhere.

Protecting Their Story

This long-cherished idea that the White House’s outreach to Muslims is brilliant foreign policy is extraordinarily resilient. Not even the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks were able to kill it.

If anything, those attacks prompted the Obama administration to defend its strategy even more aggressively. The fact that the president’s reelection was at risk surely increased the stakes.

Consider the horrific facts about Benghazi that emerged in the weeks after the attack. Among them: that the consulate had warned the State Department a month before 9/11 that it would not be able to defend against a “coordinated attack” due to “limited manpower”; that Ambassador Chris Stevens knew he was on an al Qaeda hit list, and his murder was a premeditated strike; that the Americans under fire requested military help at least three times, and were—for unknown reasons—thrice denied; that Americans were killed only after hours of being under siege without receiving help; that American officials in Tripoli, the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House were watching everything as it happened thanks to a live video feed from unmanned drones over the city.

Stunning. The reality that this was a well-planned, well-executed and lethal terrorist attack on American soil was known virtually right away.

Nevertheless, administration officials—apparently intent on preserving the myth of the success of their outreach to the Muslim world—immediately began promoting a bizarre and altogether false version of events.

The president, the secretary of state and the UN ambassador sprang into action and lashed out … at a YouTube video. An Egyptian Salafist television station, in order to incite anti-American violence on the anniversary of 9/11, had screened a low-budget, poorly made mockery of the Islamic prophet Mohammed that was made by a Coptic Christian from Egypt living in California and apparently assisted by people from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. This video served as the flimsy pretext for some of the anti-America rioting. But the mob in Cairo—led by Mohammad Zawahiri, brother of al Qaeda’s leader—had been coordinated by Salafist militants weeks in advance of the video being broadcast. And the terrorist strike in Benghazi had no connection to the video whatsoever. Nevertheless, the administration briskly diverted attention from what had really happened by fixating its attention on this YouTube clip.

American officials relentlessly attacked the video as a disgusting, reprehensible, abhorrent attack on Islam and on freedom of religion. They asked YouTube to censor it. They applauded the media for going after the video producer, who was subsequently tracked down and arrested. And then they did everything they could to downplay the seriousness of the attack. “We must be clear-eyed, even in our grief,” said Secretary Clinton. “This was an attack by a small and savage group—not the people or government of Libya.” Nothing to worry about, then.

White House press secretary Jay Carney also performed an acrobatic dance around the issue: “This is … in response not to U.S. policy, not to, obviously, the administration, not to the American people,” he explained. “It is in response to a video—a film—that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting.” In other words, We’re on the same side as the protesters. We all agree: This video is reprehensible and disgusting. “[T]his is not a case of protests directed at the United States, writ large, or at U.S. policy,” he assured us.

If these mobs did want to protest U.S. policy, the administration, the American people, or the United States writ large, what would they have to do? Islamist chants, flag burning, arson, murder—Washington doesn’t take any of these personally.

A reporter asked Mr. Carney if the attacks occurred because of “perceived American weakness” that stems from Obama’s leadership. He answered, “We’re very proud of the president’s record on foreign policy.”

Even as he said that, anti-American violence was erupting all over the world. In Tunisia, Islamist protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. Embassy compound, broke windows, started fires and raised the black flag of al Qaeda. In Sudan, a mob of 5,000 protesters marched right by Sudanese policemen and set the German Embassy on fire. In Yemen, the United States dispatched Marine reinforcements to fend off attacks. In London, 200 protesters burned American and Israeli flags outside the U.S. Embassy. In Sydney, Muslim protesters were waving signs that read, “Behead all those who insult the prophet.”

The Sunday after the 9/11 attack, Libyan President Mohamed Yousef told cbs’s Face the Nation that he had “no doubt” that what happened in Benghazi had been a preplanned terrorist strike. But that same hour, on abc’s This Week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the attack was not premeditated; it was a “spontaneous” protest that was inspired by the violence in Cairo, which happened because of the video. The Benghazi “protest” was then “hijacked” by “clusters of extremists,” and the whole thing just sort of “evolved” from there, Rice said.

Quite an elaborate account. And entirely fictional.

In the days that followed, as more facts emerged, the administration’s story got more and more convoluted. And just as all this was blowing up, the presidential debates occurred. In the vice presidential debate on October 12, Joe Biden defended the White House’s account of the Benghazi attack (which for two weeks had been that it spontaneously sprang from—in the president’s own words before the United Nations—“outrage” over a “crude and disgusting video”). Biden said this explanation was “exactly” what the intelligence community had told them—when in reality, the State Department was calling it a coordinated terrorist attack almost immediately. Mr. Biden also claimed the government didn’t know the consulate in Libya wanted more security—even though evidence proved that the State Department had repeatedly received those requests and they had obviously been denied.

Whatever mistakes were made in Benghazi, this administration would not even acknowledge they existed, let alone take responsibility.

But it went even a step further. Even as its misdirection and cover-up were being exposed and refuted by emerging evidence—and even with countries throughout the Middle East in tumult—the White House made a gutsy move: It ramped up its “right side of history,” “proud of the president’s record” rhetoric.

We’re Doing Everything Right

In his debate, Mr. Biden praised the president for his tremendous progress on the Iran problem: Though they were on the rise when he took office, the Iranians are now more isolated than ever and far less powerful. Biden gushed about his achievements, “This is a guy who’s repaired our alliances so the rest of the world follows us again.”

The rest of the world is now following America again? That is an astonishing take on the state of global affairs.

In the presidential debate about foreign policy, Mr. Obama also paraded his accomplishments. “We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11. And as a consequence, al Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated. In addition, we’re now able to transition out of Afghanistan in a responsible way, making sure that Afghans take responsibility for their own security.” He even praised himself for his handling of Benghazi: “When we received that phone call, I immediately made sure that, number one, that we did everything we could to secure those Americans who were still in harm’s way.” And despite the radicalism that has emerged in Egypt and Libya, the president reiterated his conviction that he was right to support the ousting of Mubarak, and correct in dethroning Qadhafi.

The families of the Americans killed in Benghazi have every right to take exception to his “everything we could” remark. And his statement about al Qaeda being decimated was awkward, considering that it was an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist mob that struck the consulate. But what the president said about Afghanistan warrants particular scrutiny.

Mr. Obama took credit for bringing the situation under control to the point where America can hand control back to Afghanis. But the facts undermine this claim. Ever since the so-called Obama surge—when in 2009 he shifted attention away from Iraq and sent an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan—there has been a dramatic rise in U.S. casualties. Of the more than 2,100 U.S. service members who have been killed in Afghanistan, about 70 percent have died on Mr. Obama’s watch. Of even greater concern is the alarming increase of “green on blue” attacks. This year there have been more than 30 attacks on coalition forces by their Afghan “partners.” The problem has gotten so bad that U.S. forces now carry weapons at all times—even while on base—to protect themselves from people who are supposed to be on their side.

Despite these many setbacks, however, the Obama administration actively peddled the “mission accomplished” theme on Afghanistan. During the vice presidential debate, Mr. Biden said America’s primary objective in Afghanistan is “almost completed.” Mr. Obama took it even further, repeatedly saying on the campaign trail that America has “blunted the Taliban’s momentum” and that al Qaeda is on the “path to defeat.”

But according to cbs reporter Lara Logan, the administration was misleading the American people with this “major lie” in order to justify the U.S. exit strategy. During a 60 Minutes episode on September 30, Logan interviewed Gen. John Allen, the commanding officer of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a Taliban commander who had been trained by al Qaeda. All of them agreed: Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are now returning to Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda is definitely “on the run,” as Mr. Obama repeatedly stated. But it isn’t running from American forces—it is instead rushing to fill the power void left by a superpower that has spent its strength in vain.

This is the real story. America is fading. After a decade of fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, most Americans want out. The nation’s leaders have responded by declaring victory so they can finalize an exit strategy.

Even Obama’s Republican opponent actively promoted the “mission accomplished” propaganda. “We’ve seen progress over the past several years. The surge has been successful, and the training program is proceeding at pace,” Mitt Romney said at the foreign-policy debate. There are now a large number of Afghan security forces—350,000—that are ready to step in to provide security, and we’re going to be able to make that transition by the end of 2014.” He emphatically told America’s enemies that as president, he would stick to the 2014 timetable. Obviously in that debate, he was speaking to undecided voters, moving to the center to avoid coming across as radical. But how telling is it that this is what it takes to appeal to a war-weary American electorate in 2012?

Are you buying what these leaders are selling? The prevailing narrative is that America is doing everything essentially right. In Syria, Bashar Assad is sure to go eventually; we just need to keep doing what we’re doing. In Egypt, we were correct in ousting Hosni Mubarak; we’re better off with the Muslim Brotherhood in charge. In Libya, we did right in knocking off Qadhafi; Libya is progressing nicely. In Afghanistan, we’ve basically done our job; the locals can keep things under control now, so we can bring our boys back.

Apparently, a great many Americans believe it. They want so much to think that the greatest dangers facing the nation are now in the past.

But the cold, hard, stark reality is, it just isn’t true.

The Post-American World

Events are exploding in America’s face. The Middle East is transforming, and in spite of enormously costly American efforts, it is descending deeper into radicalism. On top of that, the rest of the world faces tremendous instability. Europe is in turmoil, seized with unrest that, history shows, could be commandeered by extremists of a different stripe. Asia is being redrawn as China rises and actively undermines American interests. Latin America is also decoupling from the U.S. and playing host to more extremist and violent elements. Frankly, the proliferation of factors that could lead to devastating conflicts can numb the mind.

But America’s top leaders—both Democrat and Republican, it seems—insist that things are under control. America has never been stronger and safer. We just need to stay the course. Make a few tweaks, but keep doing what we’re doing. These leaders, in their arrogance, think they write the script. In Afghanistan, they have decided in their own minds that America won. But the reality, Logan says, is that “After 11 years of war in Afghanistan, where we are surrendering—rushing for the exits as fast as we can—not only do we not dictate the terms, but we have less power to dictate anything on the world stage.”

In other words, it isn’t al Qaeda or any other terrorist group that is on the path to defeat. It’s the United States of America.

How is this possible? Isn’t the U.S. the world’s strongest nation? In the foreign-policy debate, Mr. Obama boasted, “We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined.” But the painful truth is, that expenditure provides us with nothing. The U.S. “no longer has the … basic ability to impose its will anywhere on the planet,” Tom Engelhardt wrote on Real Clear World. “Quite the opposite, U.S. military power has been remarkably discredited globally by the most pitiful of forces” (October 10). Even a hundred or so terrorists can poke America in the eye with a sharp stick by destroying an American consulate and killing an ambassador—and face no consequences whatsoever.

The time of American superpower is past. We are in a multipolar world. Washington’s authority and influence is bleeding out in several directions, and is being absorbed by unpredictable, unstable powers.

Can Americans recognize this? Do they even care? Judging by presidential politics, it seems the stunning answer is no. As George Will said of Obama and Romney after their foreign-policy debate, “They understand, both of them, that foreign policy is very peripheral to Americans’ interests today, and what foreign policy they want needs a lot less American involvement overseas. Tonight we saw two men who don’t really disagree all that much talking about subjects concerning which the voters don’t care all that much.”

That is astonishing, given the state of the world. Americans are eager to pass responsibility for Iraq onto Iraqis, for Afghanistan onto Afghanis, for Israel onto Israelis, and for every other problem area onto “partners” in the international community. They like their presidential candidates to talk about exerting leadership in the world, but in the end, they pretty much would like the world to take care of itself. The nation’s role in the world is peripheral to their interests.

Well, the truth is that, more and more, America’s role in the world is peripheral to the world’s interests as well. America’s “ability to impose its will anywhere on the planet” is long gone. And when a political candidate says “the rest of the world follows us again,” the rest of the world chuckles—and then carries on with its business in post-American reality.

They are confident that the next administration will oversee the continuing contraction of American influence and power. America is becoming irrelevant. The U.S. is disengaging from the world, and the world is returning the favor.

But the story doesn’t end there. This massive geopolitical shift is going to have fearsome consequences. Probably within this next presidential term, the multipolar, post-American world will explode with shocks so earthshaking that no president will be able to paper over the facts. America’s pride in its power has been broken. And the powers that are rising to replace it are about to tear this world apart.