We all run across the pill bug in our gardens. At the first sign of danger, the tiny, paranoid crustacean suddenly turns into a ball — in hopes danger will have passed when he unrolls.
That roly-poly bug can serve as a fair symbol of present-day U.S. foreign policy, especially in our understandable weariness over Iraq, Afghanistan and the current scandals that are overwhelming the Obama administration.
On Aug. 4, U.S. embassies across the Middle East simply closed based on intelligence reports of planned al Qaeda violence. The shutdown of 21 diplomatic facilities was the most extensive in recent American history.
Yet we still have more than a month to go before the 12th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an iconic date for radical Islamists.
Such pre-emptive measures are no doubt sober and judicious. Yet if we shut down our entire Middle East public profile on the threat of terrorism, what will we do when more anti-American violence arises? Should we close more embassies for more days, or return home altogether?
Apparently al Qaeda did not get the message that the administration’s euphemisms of “workplace violence,” “overseas contingency operations,” “man-caused disasters” and jihad as “a holy struggle” were intended as outreach to the global Muslim community.
Instead, the terrorists are getting their second wind, as they interpret our loud magnanimity as weakness — or, more likely, simple confusion. They increasingly do not seem to fear U.S. retaliation for any planned assaults. Instead, al Qaeda franchises expect Americans to adopt their new pill-bug mode of shutting down and curling up until danger passes.
Our enemies have grounds for such cockiness. President Obama promised swift punishment for those who attacked U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya, and killed four Americans. So far, the killers roam free. Evidence abounds that they have been seen publicly in Libya.
Instead of blaming radical Islamist killers for that attack, the Obama re-election campaign team fobbed the assault on a supposedly right-wing, Islamophobic video-maker. That yarn was untrue and was greeted as politically correct appeasement in the Middle East.
All these Libyan developments take place against a backdrop of “lead from behind.” Was it wise for American officials to brag that the world’s largest military had taken a subordinate role in removing Moammar Gadhafi — with a military operation contingent on approval from the United Nations and the Arab League, but not the U.S. Congress?
No one knows what to do about the mess in Syria. When you do not know what to do, it is imprudent to periodically put down “red lines.” Yet the administration did just that to the Bashar Assad regime over the past two years.
In a similar vein, the administration has so far issued serial “deadlines” to the Iranians to cease the production of weapons-grade uranium. The mullahs don’t seem much worried about yet another deadline.
In Egypt, the United States went from abandoning ally and crook Hosni Mubarak to welcoming the freely elected and anti-American Muslim Brotherhood. Now, we are both praising and damning the military junta that overthrew President Mohammed Morsi. Do we still call that “the Arab Spring”? Is a junta still a junta, a coup still a coup?
Our entire antiterrorism agenda is a paradox. Mr. Obama ran for office on the promise of shutting down Guantanamo Bay, curbing the Patriot Act, ending renditions and preventative detention, and mumbling about drones. Then, in office, he went both hot and cold on all of them.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. hinted at trying accused terrorist killers such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in civilian courts and holding CIA interrogators responsible for enhanced interrogations. Then the administration abruptly dropped those bad ideas and embraced or expanded many of the Bush-Cheney antiterrorism protocols — and in many cases, went far beyond anything envisioned by the prior administration.
These paradoxes were not lost on our terrorist enemies. The successors to Osama bin Laden apparently guessed that the Obama administration might not like America’s antiterrorism policies any more than the terrorists themselves did.
News that the FBI scrutinized and then apparently forgot about unhinged Islamists such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sent the wrong message to terrorists. Was the Obama administration more worried about hurting feelings than preventing further attacks?
Other rivals and enemies are now fully aware of our new pill-bug mode in the Middle East — and are willing to bet that it might apply everywhere. Without worry over the U.S. reaction, Russia has given tentative asylum as a reward to Edward Snowden, who single-handedly exposed — and sabotaged — a vast National Security Agency spying network. Increasingly, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan seem to be on their own with a bullying China, unsure whether to bend or resist.
Meanwhile, the new American pill bug curls up in hopes that the mounting dangers will just go away.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.