Calling on Beowulf in the Middle East

Rioting in Cairo

Note: This week’s “Sports Saturday,” which discussed the U.S. Tennis Open, was posted on Tuesday. You can read it here.

Resentment is a key dimension of the anti-American demonstrations that are currently erupting throughout the Muslim world. As always for me, Beowulf is the go-to work for understanding and dealing with resentment. Muslim leaders of those countries would do well do check out how Beowulf fights and defeats Grendel. I’m especially thinking of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as he contemplates what to do about the demonstrators who assaulted the American Embassy.

Although the protesters in Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, and Palestine  have all been citing a crude anti-Mohamed film made in the United States, the discontent undoubtedly goes beyond that.  The spark fell in the same dry grass of economic discontent that gave rise to the Arab Spring. When young people see their hopes for a future blunted, they don’t need much excuse to take to the streets. A long history of Muslim resentment against the West can be used as cover for a host of other grievances.

Morsi used to be one of the demonstrators, and it appears that he had difficulty realizing that he is now head of a major country. But as Beowulf could have told him, if you don’t stand up to Grendelian resentment, it will tear your hall apart. To be sure, you can extend a hand of understanding—that’s how I interpret Beowulf’s intimate grip—but you must hold fast in ways that the resentment understands. To be sure, Morsi must condemn the offending film, but at the same time he must be equally resolute in opposing the violent demonstrators. Because initially Morsi only expressed sympathy with the demonstrators, he allowed a situation to get much worse.

Obama played calculated hard ball with Morsi, however, and has gotten the Egyptian president to move to a more balanced approach. Here’s the New York Times:

By midday, searching for a middle ground, Mr. Morsi appeared on national television, telling Egyptians it was their “religious duty to protect our guests and those who come to us from outside our nation,” including their embassies, and businesses. “I know that the people attacking the embassies do not represent any of us. We all have to cooperate to express opinions while maintaining our principles, our correct peaceful ways that the whole world accepts,” he said.

Mr. Morsi offered condolences for the American ambassador killed in Libya, in a parallel protest over the same video, and he vowed to bring charges against those who had scaled the embassy walls in Cairo. At the same time, however, he was also careful to stress the legitimacy of the protesters’ grievances. “We all reject any trespassing or offense to our Prophet Muhammad,” Mr. Morsi said, adding, “We oppose anyone who offends our prophet with words, actions, expression. This is rejected by all Muslims and all Egyptians.”

In my book How Beowulf Can Save America, I talk about how trying to accommodate extremists led to wing nuts taking over the Republican Party. Morsi will find the same thing occurring in Egypt (to his sorrow and our own) if he is not careful.

The balance that Morsi is attempting is also the target of Obama and the State Department (they criticize the film but say that violence is unacceptable). Mitt Romney, on the other hand, resembles the braggart Unferth in Beowulf. In Unferth’s eyes, everything can be solved by talking tough. Unferth sees Beowulf as a fraud and Romney sees Obama as an appeaser who goes on apology tours around the world. All would be well, he contends, if the United States resumed its customary swagger.

But of course, Muslim eruptions have occurred during both Republican and Democratic administrations, both during those that were diplomatically nuanced (Bush I, Clinton, Obama) and those that talked tough (Reagan, Bush II).

Beowulf proves Unferth wrong, taking a calculated approach to Grendel’s attack. He is willing to take a long view and actually allows the monster to kill one of his own men to figure out how he operates. It’s when Grendel thinks he has easy pickings that Beowulf strikes, grabbing his arm. When Obama said, in response to Romney’s wild accusations about apologizing to the embassy attackers, that the governor “shoots first and aims later,” he’s delivering a version of Beowulf’s “Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say . . . But it was mostly beer [campaign rhetoric in Romney’s case] that was doing the talking.”

A new Vanity Fair article reveals just how calculated Obama has been in responding to developments in the Middle East—how he pushes his advisors to think outside the box to come up solutions. In Libya, by figuring out how to enlist the support of an Arab coalition, by “leading from behind,” he was able to garner far more support for America than, say, Bush was able to get in Iraq. That is why the Libya operation was such a success.

Such an approach can be very frustrating at times, and Obama has been roasted for refusing to intervene in Syria as Assad massacres his people. But this may be his version of Beowulf allowing his man to die as he figures out what to do. Premature intervention, again as we learned in Iraq, can lead to far more suffering.

All that being said, Obama’s (and Hillary Clinton’s) philosophy for handling the Middle East—sympathize with the desires of the Arab Spring and cautiously support democracy movements, even as the U.S. works with certain repressive regimes—is being tested with the latest outbreaks. Furthermore, for all the success we had in Libya, we just had four diplomats killed there.

But because there remains a lot of pro-American sentiment in Libya, I expect that Al-Qaeda attackers will pay a heavy price. The Egyptian president, meanwhile, is learning the responsibilities that come with being a leader, not a demonstrator. In short, as we watch events unfold in the upcoming days, we must remind ourselves that a hair trigger response–very tempting in an election season–can often do more harm than good.

When you’re dealing with resentment, be calm but firm.  Or as Rudyard Kipling memorably puts it in the opening and closing lines of “If,”

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

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