If there’s one thing President Obama hasn’t been good at, it’s taking responsibility. But it seems as though, in the matter of the anti-Muslim YouTube video, he may just have done so, and in the worst possible way.
Obama’s and the State Department’s line from the beginning has been threefold:
- We think the video is a miserable and offensive production
- The riots were a spontaneous response to the video
- It’s not the government’s position, and we didn’t have anything to do with it
On Point #1, there is near-universal agreement, although for reasons that I’ll discuss farther down, it’s questionable as to the wisdom of the US Government expressing such an opinion, and the way that they did comes pretty close to the acceptable limits.
Point #2 is absurd on the face of it. All evidence is, and has been for some time, that the attacks were planned, and two overseas newspapers have reported that the US Government had warning in advance that something was up. To what degree that intelligence was specific enough to be actionable is a matter for a Congressional investigation and another day. It, along with the high degree of organization in the Libyan attack, help to establish that these attacks were anything but spontaneous.
Point #3 is where we start to get into real trouble, because even if it’s true, it’s far from clear that you want the US Government saying it.
A lot has been made of the migration of money away from political candidates’ official campaigns and to PACs and now, SuperPACs. This can cause the candidate to lose control of his message, since there’s not supposed to be any coordination between the campaign and the PAC. But it also gives supporters of a campaign latitude to say things that the campaign could never say, or shouldn’t say, and the non-coordination law gives the candidate the ability to wave away questions about PAC ads that might be edgy or even in poor taste. In fact, it’s critical that the candidate do that, because as soon as he starts to question things his supporters are saying, he can be held responsible for their saying it.
While the video isn’t responsible for the riots, the riots can become a lever by which Arab and Islamist government move the US in the direction of self-censorship in the matter of Islam. This has long been a desiderata of these governments, and one which the US has resisted, certainly better than European countries. Which is why it’s so important that Obama and Clinton (and through Carney and others), make the appropriate response.
Now comes word that the US government is “asking” YouTube to review the video and re-decide
that if it violates YouTube’s terms of service. As lousy an idea as this is under normal circumstances, it runs afoul of the cardinal principle that not only can’t the government stop its people from talking, it has no moral right to, and doesn’t want to.
By putting pressure on YouTube to shut up, it’s tossing away all of Point #3, and putting us at risk for greater pressure down the line. By saying that it does have the power to prevent certain kinds of speech on the basis of content, it also implicitly assumes responsibility for the kinds of speech it chooses to deal with. If it claims that it doesn’t like something someone said, outsiders can ask why they don’t pressure YouTube, or whatever platform, to remove it. If the government chooses not to do so, claims that the government must really agree with what’s being said (or at least, really like who’s saying it), gain currency. Not only does it constrict the bounds of acceptable speech, it also has the potential to tie up the US government’s diplomacy.
One might question whether or not this is an appropriate “teachable moment,” as the lefties like to say, for anyone in the Arab world. And yet, I would have a preferred a response from our State Department that focused on the virtues of open and robust debate, with the occasional abuses of that right, to one that focuses on the helplessness of the the US government to control the speech of its citizens.