In the midst of the Arab Spring I had lunch one day with a middle eastern colleague who expressed deep concern about what was taking place in Egypt, particularly over the possible ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the fall of Egypt into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. My friend was no fan of Mubarak, but he preferred political stability over political anarchy—he didn’t subscribe to the Thomas Jefferson school of revolution:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. [1]

Better the tyrant you know than the tyrants you don’t know, I suppose. The only problem with that cliche as it applied to my friend was he knew the tyranny of the Muslim Brotherhood . . . and it made Mubarak’s tyranny pale by comparison. In no way did my friend see what was taking place in Egypt at the time as a watering of the liberty tree.

At time of the Arab Spring—echoing my middle eastern friend’s concern—I wrote of my worry that it would produce what everyone longed for: democracy among Arab nation-states.

The events of September 11, 2012, have gone a long way to confirm my friend’s and my concern.

Much confusion has surrounded the various messages from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, the State Department, and the White House. But I think we can all agree that the original missive from the embassy was an embarrassment to the American people. It read:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others. [2]

To be fair, the President did condemn the violence perpetrated at our embassy in Cairo and the murder of four diplomates in Benghazi, Libya, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The State Department and the White House also said that the statement from the Egyptian embassy wasn’t approved through official channels. Nevertheless, reading that statement reminded me of a story told by Winston Churchill.

I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum’s circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit . . . which I most desired to see was the one described as “The Boneless Wonder.” My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralising for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years to see the Boneless Wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench. [3]

We’ve witnessed the same Boneless Wonder in our Egyptian embassy. Their boneheaded statement in response to what amounts to a declaration of war is not only foolish it is cowardly. And cowardice in the Middle East is reviled, as this ancient Egyptian saying reveals:

To take no notice of a violent attack is to strengthen the heart of the enemy. Vigor is valiant, but cowardice is vile.

America and Americans deserve better than what we got in the boneless response from the U.S. embassy in Egypt . . . especially the four Americans who died in Libya trying to produce something good out of the Arab Spring.

[1] Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Smith, November 13, 1787, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 911.

[2] Embassy of the United States, Cairo, Egypt, “U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement,” September 11, 2012, http://egypt.usembassy.gov/pr091112.html (accessed September 12, 2012).

[3] Winston S. Church referring to Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, “Speech before Parliament,” January 28, 1939, in Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, ed. Richard Langworth (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 34.

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