How Muslim Unrest Has Created A Crisis For RomneyI After Libya Disaster

There’s a very distinct, unpleasant flavor to news over the past 24 hours. And no, it isn’t diesel prices, FDI, or India’s chances at T20. After going through today’s papers and news reports online, I realized that there’s a type of story that’s come in all sections – from the local news about Ghaziabad, which I am a humble resident of, to national news, to global news, and even onto the opinion pages. The story, fundamentally (no pun), is about angry young men upset over a matter of faith. I don’t question anyone being upset over matters of faith – what I am concerned about is the people who are paying the price for their being upset. Who, mostly, have no clue what it’s all about and end up as collateral damage.

The Local News pages in today’s paper tell me the story of “more than 200 rioters, all of whom seemed to be aged between 20 and 25, who vandalized the local police station, set a PCR van ablaze, then charged into another police station and set it on fire.” The National Highway connecting Ghaziabad to Delhi was blocked for hours, and random passing vehicles stopped, damaged, in some cases burnt.  The provocation: some local residents found some pages of a religious text with abuses scribbled on them near a mofussil railway station. The TOI report says “prima facie it appears that someone threw the book from a train… local residents approached the police and shouted slogans against the administration and the police”. How would the local thana police be responsible for, or prevent, anyone throwing pages of any religious text from a passing train? That point didn’t deter the crowd from subsequently damaging or burning a total of 50 vehicles, and, according to the police, indulging in robbery and looting.

Has anyone been arrested? No. Did anyone who was obstructed, robbed, or whose vehicle was burnt, have anything to do with the episode? Not that we know of, yet. A thousand-strong team of police did not arrest anyone after police stations were ransacked and police vehicles burnt. I’d like to see that restrained passivity if the mob was not charged on a ‘sensitive issue’ and was, for example, protesting a fake encounter or demanding action against a rapist.

The National News sections have registered the ‘Grand Mufti’ of Kashmir declaring, “I strongly condemn the act (the blasphemous film) and appeal to Kashmiris to register their protest against the film and even attack US citizens if they are seen anywhere in the Valley from tomorrow”. Since people don’t usually ask to see someone’s passport / visa before bashing them up when operating in groups, I assume this is blanket licence to assault any white-skinned guy, who, by extension, is deemed responsible for what an Egyptian settled in the US chooses to make. How would the Mufti respond to any deranged Pastor in the US – or the UK or Germany for that matter – asking for reciprocal action? In a world where some people of all faiths and all nationalities will be found in practically every country, apart from strengthening his own power position as fiery defender of his faith in his territory, what is the Mufti achieving? And why is he allowed to run amok unchecked?

The Editorial Page of HT today has an article on Tom Holland, a British author, who is facing death threats following the TV adaptation of his book on the origins of Islam. Channel 4 has cancelled the repeat showing of the documentary following threats to the author. The author of the piece, Farrukh Dhondy, has argued that while the merit / accuracy of the book is one debate, the issue has now ‘degenerated into the big question of free academic speech and how far intimidation should curtail it’. Following the Danish cartoonist episode and the Salman Rushdie threats, such responses add up, brick by brick, to cementing perceptions and drawing walls between communities and faiths – but at the first cut, again, action here is primarily based on intimidation, not because the Channel agrees with the protestors.

The International News pages, of course, for the past couple of days have been dominated by the violence in Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, etc. The US ambassador to Libya’s violent death was on account of a film made by a random person who, as reports today indicate, has served 21 months in US prisons for bank fraud. For all the foreign policy stupidities of the US, the people actually killed had not the faintest responsibility for the film, did they? An AP report on the US ‘bracing for more protests’ from yesterday said the US is “bracing for another potential eruption of violent demonstrations in parts of the Muslim world after Friday’s weekly prayers – traditionally a time of protest in the Middle East and North Africa.” (itals mine).

What is the meaning of ‘traditionally a time of protest’? The issue being protested about changes, but ‘protest’ is consistent? Kashmir watchers will relate to the phase in the valley where Friday afternoon was seen by security forces as a time of protest – irrespective of the issue being protested against, which often changed week to week. Do we see where this is heading – or has already headed? The branding?

The question is not about whether a grievance is genuine or not. You can’t quantify sensitivity or angst, fair enough. Only those aggrieved can really decide whether the ground for their grievance matters deeply enough to them. There may – there often are – provocations. But such provocations can be applicable to anyone, any person, any faith, anytime. Some loony in some remote part of the world can make a film on any faith, any sect, any sub-sect that may not be palatable to those it is talking about. India has a billion people and another idiot may tomorrow scatter pages of another religious book through the windows of a passing train. Should we condone mass rioting?

The problem I have is that in all cases, the grievance is being addressed not through logic, or dialogue, or sentiment – it is being addressed through sticks, stones, guns and threats. The people whose vehicles were burnt simply because they were passing by are unlikely to take a very enlightened view of the police’s kid glove handling of the violence in Ghaziabad. A reader on the TOI site remarked that the government is quick to arrest a cartoonist but will not respond to the Mufti’s statement. The authorities tend to stand by and let mobs give expression to their outrage – and thereby legitimize recurrence of such expression. What they don’t realize is that they are legitimizing counter-expression tomorrow. Frenzied young men gathered in mobs tend to behave fairly similarly, irrespective of their surnames. But we have to tell them that it doesn’t work – not go soft and watch, then do the same when another group does that in another place, another time. You would really think that for a country born in the midst of frenzied crowds killing each other in the name of religion, we would have learnt that lesson by now.

A New York Times report titled ‘Protests over anti-Islam film flare beyond the Mideast’ has this perceptive quote from Rob Malley, the Middle East-North African program director for the International Crisis Group: “We have, throughout the Arab world, a young, unemployed, alienated and radicalized group of people, mainly men, who have found a vehicle to express themselves”.

Well, Mr Malley, the news is that this phenomena’s not just in the Arab world. It’s pretty much wider. Hell, it’s right next door, in Ghaziabad as well.

This is one way in which we’d rather not get global. Or so methinks.

by Nicholas D. Kristof (09-15-12)

DIPLOMACY is a minefield, and Mitt Romney spent the last week blowing up his foreign policy credentials to be President. He raised doubts about his capacity to deal with global crises, and we were left hoping that if that 3 a.m. call ever went to him, he’d have set up call forwarding.

The essential problem is that every time Romney touches foreign policy, he breaks things. He went on a friendly trip to Britain — the easiest possible test for a candidate, akin to rolling off a log — and endeared himself by questioning London’s readiness to host the Olympic Games. In the resulting firestorm, one newspaper, The Sun, denounced “Mitt the Twit.”

(Imagine a President Romney making a London trip and helpfully offering off-the-cuff advice on Northern Ireland, or breaking the ice in Parliament by telling jokes about Queen Elizabeth. The War of 1812 would resume, and the British would again be burning down the White House.)

Then there was the Romney trip to Israel, where he insulted Palestinians and left some Jews uncomfortable with stereotyping by praising Jewish culture in the context of making money.

After that trip, you’d have thought that on foreign policy, Romney might remember the adage: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Yet with the Middle East exploding in recent days because of a video insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Romney dived in with a statement that hit a trifecta: it was erroneous, inflammatory and offensive.

Still, I was initially in a forgiving mood. Presidential candidates always havemicrophones in their faces, and it’s not surprising that periodically they say inane things. President Obama himself blew it a few days ago by mistakenly asserting that we didn’t consider Egypt an ally. But Obama then had the good sense to have the White House clarify that “not an ally” in that context meant “an ally.”

If Romney had similarly explained that in denouncing Obama he was actually praising the administration, the episode might have blown over. But after a night of sleep, he doubled down and repeated his denunciation of the president. That was just reckless.(Romney also underscored his ignorance by referring to the “embassy” in Benghazi, LibyaEmbassies are in capitals, so it was a consulate that was attacked in Benghazi.)

Perhaps the Romney campaign should invest in a muzzle for its candidate. It might even be tax-deductible!

Foreign policy isn’t as glamorous as it seems. Diplomacy mostly consists of managing crazies who are making unreasonable demands in impossible situations with no solutions. And those are just our allies.

In the Middle East, the basic dynamic is that extremists on one side empower extremists on the other. Thus anti-Muslim extremists released a video that Salafi Muslim extremists then publicized to provoke grass-roots outrage that would benefit them.

It’s too bad that Salafis weren’t as indignant about the massacre of Syrians and Sudanese as about the trailer of a movie that may not even exist. As a parody Twitter account of Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, posted: “Wow! Good thing I just bombed mosques, killed women and children and I didn’t make an anti-Muslim video! People would be after me!”

The Republican Party is caught in a civil war on foreign policy, and Romney refuses to pick sides. In contrast to his approach on the economy, he just doesn’t seem to have thought much about global issues. My hunch is that for Secretary of State he would pick a steady hand, like Robert Zoellick, but Romney has also surrounded himself with volatile neocons.

With China, Romney seems intent on a trade war. In the Middle East, it appears he’d like to subcontract foreign policy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu recently tried to push the United States to adopt a nuclear red line that, if Iran crossed it, would lead us to go to war there.

Obama was right to resist, and it has been unseemly for Romney to side with a foreign leader in spats with the United States.(For my part, I think Obama should indeed set a red line — warning Netanyahu to stop interfering in American elections.)

Most dangerous of all is Romney’s policy on Iran, which can’t be dismissed as an offhand misstatement. As my colleagues David E. Sanger and Ashley Parker note, Romney muddles his own position on his nuclear red line for Iran. Plenty of candidates don’t write their own foreign policy position papers, but Romney is unusual in that he seems not to have even read his.

According to clarifications from Romney’s campaign, he apparently would order a military strike before Iran even acquired a bomb, simply when it was getting close. For anyone who has actually seen a battlefield, that’s a blithe, too-light embrace of a path to yet another war. It’s emblematic of a candidate who, on foreign policy, appears an empty shell.

One day this spring, over lunch in Chicago, David Axelrod offered up a concise summary of Team Obama’s prevailing view about the race ahead against Mitt Romney. “We have the better candidate, and we have the better argument,” Axelrod told me. “The question is just whether the externalities trip us up.” For months before that and every day since, the litany of potential exogenous shocks—from the collapse of the eurozone to a hot conflict between Israel and Iran to a succession of brutal jobs reports—has kept Axelrod and his colleagues tossing and twitching in their beds at night. For all their overt confidence, the Obamans are also stone-cold paranoiacs, well aware of the iron law of politics enunciated long ago by the poet Robert Burns: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” Which, for those unversed in archaic Scottish, translates roughly as “Shit happens.”

And so it does, with the past week proving another maxim: that when shit rains, shit pours. In the space of 72 hours, what began, horrifically enough on September 11, with the murder of four Americans (including one of our best and bravest, Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya) at the consulate in Benghazi spiraled into a region-wide upheaval, with angry Muslim protests directed at American diplomatic missions erupting in sixteen countries. Suddenly, the president was facing just the kind of externality that his team had been bracing for: a full-blown ­foreign-policy crisis less than eight weeks out from Election Day. And a campaign marked by stasis and even torpor was jolted to life as if by a pair of defibrillator paddles applied squarely to its solar plexus.Moments like this are not uncommon in presidential elections, and when they come, they tend to matter. For unlike the posturing and platitudes that constitute the bulk of what occurs on the campaign trail, big external events provide voters with something authentic and valuable: a real-time test of the temperament, character, and instincts of the men who would be commander-in-chief. And when it comes to the past week, the divergence between the resulting report cards could hardly be more stark.Anyone doubting the potential significance of that disparity need only think back to precisely four years ago, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a worldwide financial panic. In the ten days that followed, Obama put on a master class in self-possession and unflappability under pressure; his rival, John McCain, did the opposite. When the smoke cleared, the slight lead McCain had held in the national polls was gone and Obama had seized the lead. Though another month remained in the campaign, the race was effectively over.

For Romney, the first blaring sign that his reaction to the assault on the consulate in Benghazi had badly missed the mark was the application of the phrase “Lehman ­moment” to his press availability on the morning of September 12. Here was ­America under attack, with four dead on foreign soil. And here was Romney, defiantly refusing to adopt a tone of sobriety, solemnity, or seriousness, instead attempting to score cheap political points, doubling down on his criticism from the night before that the Obama administration had been “disgraceful” for “sympathiz[ing]” with the attackers—criticism willfully ignoring the chronology of events, the source of the statement he was pillorying, the substance of the statement, and the circumstances under which it was made.That the left heaped scorn on Romney’s gambit came as no surprise. But the right reacted almost as harshly—with former aides to John McCain, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan creating an on-the-record chorus of disapproval, while countless other Republican officials and operatives chimed in anonymously. “This is worse than a Lehman moment,” says a senior GOP operative. “­McCain made mistakes of impulsiveness, but this was a deliberate and premeditated move, and it totally revealed Romney’s character; it revealed him as completely craven and his candidacy as serving no higher purpose than his ambition.”This bipartisan condemnation would have been bad enough in itself, but its negative effects were amplified because it fed into a broader narrative emerging in the media across the ideological spectrum: that Romney is losing, knows he is losing, and is starting to panic. This story line is, of course, rooted in reality, given that every available data point since the conventions suggests that Obama is indeed, for the first time, opening up a lead outside the margin of ­error nationally and in the battleground states. So the press corps is now on the lookout for signs of desperation in Romney and is finding them aplenty—most vividly in his reaction to Libya, but even before that, in his post-convention appearance on Meet the Press, where he embraced some elements of Obamacare (only to have his campaign walk back his comments later the same day).

The peril to Romney’s candidacy of being seen through the lens of desperation can’t be overstated. The paramount strategic objective of any campaign is to maintain control of the candidate’s public image—and if the media filter begins to view his every move through a dark or unflattering prism, things can quickly spin out of control, to a point where nothing he says or does is taken at face value. “Romney is in a very bad place,” says another senior Republican strategist. “He’s got the Republican intelligentsia second-guessing him, publicly and privately. The party base has never trusted him and thinks that everything bad it ever thought about him is being borne out now. And he’s got the media believing that he can’t win. He’s right on the edge of a self-­fulfilling downward spiral.”

Whether Romney can resist that spiral in the two weeks between now and the first presidential debate is an open question—but there’s no doubt that the pressure on him to win that debate decisively is now almost overwhelming. “If he doesn’t, you’ll see the whole thing start to unravel pretty quickly, à la Dole in 1996,” says a third GOP strategist, arguing that Romney’s fund-­raising will dry up and the expected flood of money from conservative super-pacs will be reduced to a trickle.

None of which is to say that Romney is alone in confronting serious challenges owing to these events. For Obama, you could argue, the circumstances are equally demanding. In ­almost every way, running as an incumbent confers marked advantages: the power and stature of the office, the ­ability to demonstrate governing capacity rather than just stipulate it, the infrastructure that comes with the White House, including the use of that great big plane.

But when crises are roiling halfway around the globe, those advantages are severe­ly tempered. No longer is full-time, single-minded campaigning an option—nor should it be. Yet so far Obama has managed to strike a subtle balance on the hustings: suitably somber, resolute, and almost Bushian in his combination of tough talk (“I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished”), patriotic swagger, and partisan contrast with his opponent.

If circumstances in the Middle East worsen, however, Obama’s performance will be measured under the magnifying glass of 24/7 campaign coverage. And those circumstances will inject an uncomfortable degree of unpredictability into an environment that he and his leaving-nothing-to-chance advisers would dearly prefer to be as stable as ­possible—and put on the line one of the areas of policy, national security and foreign policy, in which his lead over Romney has always been yawningly wide.

Making matters all the dicier for Obama is the possibility that, beyond the embassy protests, he may also have to cope with a related headache induced by Israel and Iran—and in particular by Bibi Netanyahu. In the days before the Libya tragedy, Netanyahu launched a broadside plainly aimed at the U.S. over what he sees as its spinelessness in working with Israel to halt the Iranian nuclear program by any means necessary. To some, the broadside had all the appearances of Netanyahu trying not just to place a thumb on the scale in America’s election but of slamming his whole hand on it. And there is no paucity of evidence to suggest Netanyahu would much prefer Romney, whom he has known for years, to win; his warm embrace of the Republican nominee when he visited Israel in July, which was tantamount to an endorsement, was ­remarkable in its brazenness and nearly without precedent in the modern annals of presidential politics.

Still, there are signs that Netanyahu may simply be trying to exercise what ­leverage he has now because he knows it will soon be diminished. As a former American intelligence officer who met ­recently with top Likud officials put it to Politico, “They are grimly accepting the reality Mitt won’t win.”

Take out the adverb in that sentence and you have a pretty decent encapsulation of the emerging cross-partisan conventional wisdom here at home—one that Romney needs to do something fast to shatter, or it may harden into concrete.

Some 12 years ago, as Bill Clinton was winding down his second term, I jokingly asked the then President why he shouldn’t think of running for office in India, perhaps contesting a parliamentary election. He was only 54 and would be demitting office in a few months because of US term limits which don’t allow a third shot at the Presidency. It seemed such a waste, considering the stellar record he had established in what were, looking back, the boom years of the United States. Couldn’t we in India, stuck with a lumbering, geriatric 20th century leadership, borrow him or hire him to take us into the 21st century?

Of course, it was a lighthearted suggestion; we knew the law wouldn’t permit it. But he burst out laughing, and chortled that maybe he should think about it. By then he had taken a liking to India, and I think even the thought of it intrigued the wonk in him. The exchange took place in the White House during a state dinner the Clintons hosted for then Prime Minister Vajpayee. The Indian delegation had left the party early (the Prime Minister was leaving for India that night), but Clinton had urged local guests to stay back (it was the last banquet of his presidency), so the party went on till the wee hours of the morning, enabling almost everyone to chat with the President.
There was plenty of wine and desserts that night. A colleague who got fairly sloshed asked me around midnight what would happen if he passed out in the White House – would they allow him to crash in the Lincoln Bedroom? (One of the many White House scandals those days centered on Clinton allowing friends to sleepover at the Lincoln Bedroom in return for campaign contributions.) “Well, more likely they will put you in a cab, send you home, and you will never be able to set foot in the White House again,” I chuckled. Mind you, those were heady pre-9/11 days.
Indeed, those were giddy times, and early days in the renewed US-India courtship. President Clinton had decisively tilted Washington New Delhi’s way during the Kargil war, triggering off a big change in Indian perception of the US. But Clinton’s courtship of India occurred very late in his second term, almost as an afterthought. Both his trip to India and Vajpayee’s return visit to Washington took place in the President’s final year in office, but on both occasions, he showed Indians not familiar with him his complete mastery over both style and substance when it came to engaging the public.
Clinton’s speech to the Indian Parliament in March 2000 is one of the most eloquent I’ve ever heard in the Indian context. But there are many others that came to mind – including his farewell remarks as President at an airport hangar in Maryland — as I sat listening to his peroration at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week. The compelling thing about Clinton’s speeches is not mesmerizing words and soaring rhetoric. He’s all about policy, dressed up in folksy humor and personal anecdotage. In the era of global communication and instant reach (and feedback), he has reinvented the fireside chat, and elevated it to such a level of intimacy that you feel he’s talking only to you. Most of what he speaks about is what you’d call kitchen table issues – sending your kids to school, healthcare, social security etc., neatly arranged in a grand architecture of Democratic Party principles.
Soon after his address, friends on social media, swooning over his performance and wallowing in nostalgia, raised that decade old question again. Oh, why can’t we borrow him (he’s still only 66) for India? But a more pertinent question is: why aren’t our leaders, even those cerebral and analytical, similarly gifted in framing policy, problem-solving, and connecting and conveying them to the masses? Why is our political discourse full of platitudes, banalities, and triteness of the “Gandhiji ne kaha tha…garibi hatana hain” kind?
Our leadership is a reasonably accurate reflection of our people and our priorities. Indian voters largely vote on identity issues, not policy matters. And when they do vote on issues, it’s usually short-term concerns. We don’t make our politicians work hard for our votes, never ask them questions about long term issues like national education or health blueprints and budgets. So if we don’t bother to learn and don’t ask, where is the compulsion for our mostly mediocre politicians, many of them semi-literate criminals and still mired in a moffussil mindset, to have any grasp, much less mastery, over the subject?
To see what we are missing, take a look at our leadership’s desultory speech on (any) Teacher’s Day or any speech on education for that matter. Compare that to the several made by Obama (including an epic State of the Union in 2011 when he called for a “sputnik” moment). Check them out for vision, depth, clarity, urgency, passion, all illustrated by statistics, personal stories, and anecdotes. Then recall our own prime minister’s heartwarming journey from an unlit home in the boondocks to 7, Race Course Road, and his government’s epic Right to Education Bill, both spottily conveyed to voters. Imagine what Clinton and Obama would have done with such material.
Well, we missed hiring Clinton in 2000. Maybe we can try hiring Obama as our policy wonk and explainer-in-chief when he steps down.