American revolutionary Patrick Henry famously declared, "Give me liberty or give me death!" This month, furious mobs throughout the Islamic world decree death, a sentence they imposed on four Americans in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens - the first U.S. ambassador murdered in the line of duty since 1979. Before buying the spin that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam video, Think Again.
According to Libyan President Mohamed Magarief, the video had "nothing to do with" the premeditated terrorist attack. Conducted on the anniversary of 9/11 in order to "carry a certain message," the Benghazi attack and violent anti-American rioting elsewhere reflect the ascendency of radical Islam in the wake of the Arab Spring. By attributing unrest to false pretexts - not violent jihadists seeking to impose their totalitarian ideology - we incentivize further cycles of violence and legitimize the Islamists' tactics.
As former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani explains, "Protests orchestrated on the pretext of slights and offenses against Islam have been part of Islamist strategy for decades." Rather than condemn real victimization and powerlessness - like the Assad regime's slaughter of 20,000 Syrians; Saudi persecution of women, homosexuals and religious minorities; or the Taliban who spray schoolgoing Afghan girls with acid - Islamists stoke anti-Americanism and spread anti-Jewish and anti-Christian hate speech to consolidate power and distract "from societal, political and economic failures."
But if these failures are the root cause of Islamic rage, shouldn't we encourage the Islamic world to adopt the civil and economic liberties that are prerequisites for a humane society? If mutual respect is the goal, shouldn't American leaders denounce Islamic intolerance and stop bragging about Osama bin Laden's assassination?
Despite recent foreign policies designed to promote American popularity and mutual respect - engagement, "resets" and "leading from behind" - America is still the "Great Satan" to Israel's "Little Satan," and contradictions and questions abound. Yes, bin Laden is dead, but so is Stevens, whose diary reveals worries about diplomatic security and assassination. As the 9/11 anniversary approached, why weren't extraordinary precautions taken?
Throughout the Arab Spring, America supported rebels in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen - sites of the worst anti-American rioting this month - but didn't secure power-sharing commitments to prevent Islamist domination. Having supported regime change in these countries, why didn't America support revolutionaries in Iran or its client Syria, both of which pose graver security threats to U.S. and global interests, never mind Middle East stability?
As Iran's nuclear-weapons program nears completion, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised on Monday that Israel would be "eliminated." Rather than characterize these existential threats to Israel as mere "noise," shouldn't we "affirm America's dedication to blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions through military force if necessary," as Alan Dershowitz encourages?
Though opposed by our commanders in Afghanistan, America's military surge was precipitously undermined by a fixed timetable for withdrawal, giving the Taliban and terrorist organizations a date certain by which they could resume operations. But why commit U.S. forces to a conflict using tactics our military believes will undermine our mission?
Compounding the uncertainty and heightening suspicions were assurances (caught on an open mic last spring) given to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by President Obama that he'd have "more flexibility" after the election. Being no longer subject to electoral accountability grants flexibility to do what beyond the already canceled missile-defense system our Polish and Czech allies had agreed to host?
Rarely has America exhibited such uncertainty and equivocation nor diverged so dramatically from the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus forged over the past century. President Reagan called it "peace through strength," and President Kennedy encapsulated it eloquently in his inaugural address: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
America's capacity to project this authority and secure our interests around the world is predicated on strength at home. Yet unable to live within our means and more indebted than any other nation in the history of the world, we've mortgaged our children's futures and jeopardized control over our destiny. At this critical moment, we must reclaim the America that inspires others to follow our lead.
As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Albert Einstein said, "The world is a dangerous place to live in not because of the people who are evil but because of the people who don't do anything about it." Americans have always been a people willing to do "something about" evil. If we're to continue, we must stand our ground in defense of our values.
Think Again - without America as a bulwark of liberty, how will the Islamic world ever come to embrace freedom and modernity?
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. Her column runs every other Thursday. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind.