Susan Rice's dodge

“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell wrote, “needs a constant struggle.” Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is losing the struggle — although, in fairness, it’s not clear how hard she’s trying.

After the attacks on our embassies, Rice appeared on the Sunday TV shows in what was widely taken as an audition for secretary of state in a second Obama administration. She proved herself willfully clueless and morally obtuse. In other words, perfectly suited for the job. Based on this performance, she should start measuring the drapes on the State Department’s seventh floor.

The ambassador insisted that last week’s protests in Egypt and Libya were a spontaneous eruption of Islamic rage over a rancid, barely coherent anti-Muhammad video posted on YouTube a few weeks ago. It was an unusually purposeful spontaneity, though.

In Egypt, a crowd that included the brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri showed up to tear down the American flag and replace it with an al-Qaida banner on the anniversary of 9/11. What are the odds?

In Libya, the attackers were described by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers as coordinating indirect and direct fire. The militants launched, he said, “two different separate attacks on locations there near the consulate, and they repelled a fairly significant Libyan force that came to rescue the embassy.”

In Rice’s telling, the protests aren’t an “expression of hostility in the broadest sense to the United States or U.S. policies.” Yet the Egyptian rampagers reportedly chanted, “Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!” In Afghanistan, protesters cried, “Death to America.” Demonstrators routinely burn American flags. It’s hard to imagine how to make broader expressions of hostility to the U.S.

For Rice, they love us; they just hate what we post on YouTube. She blamed “a very hateful, very offensive video that has offended many people around the world.” Note the euphemism. “Offended” is what you are when someone uses the wrong dinner fork; “stark raving mad” is what you are when you storm an embassy over an amateurish video. The “many people around the world” happen to be concentrated in one region and one religion.

The fact is that video is more a pretext than a provocation. As in prior such episodes of violence over alleged Western offenses against Islam, the people who are enraged need to be told to be enraged, and perhaps paid a little on the side for their trouble.

For all its scurrilousness, the anti-Muhammad video is laughably bad. If this is the best cinematic effort that Muslim-haters can muster, the Islamic world should rest easy. Frankly, the National Endowment for the Arts has funded better anti-religious material.

But Obama officials fasten on the video so they can flinch from hard truths. They can’t bring themselves to say that the protesters hate us and our freedoms. They can’t admit that electing President Barack Hussein Obama, with generations of Muslims in his family (as he boasted in his Cairo speech), wasn’t enough to win over the Muslim world. They can’t look dispassionately on an Arab Spring that is sputtering out into more radicalism and more disorder. And, most disturbing of all, they can’t muster a full-throated defense of free speech that doesn’t give ground to the premises of Muslims hostile to it.

To blame the video for the violence, rather than the provocateurs on the ground, is a concession to the logic of blasphemy laws giving aggrieved Muslims a veto over free speech. The administration has already shown itself disturbingly sympathetic to these efforts, co-sponsoring a U.N. resolution in 2009 against religious hate speech. In free societies, religious hate speech is simply free speech, otherwise Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris wouldn’t be allowed to publish. Any hedging on this principle is a betrayal of who we are.

There’s no assurance that Susan Rice sees that, any more than she sees anything else in front of her nose.

• Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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