Lost foreign policy opportunities in the Middle East

It’s taken me a while to process what happened on Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya.

I first heard about it from a friend in my dorm room just before a 2 p.m. class. I saw the headlines about the violence and the storming of the embassies, about the months-old anti-Islamic film that surfaced on Arab news outlets days before the 9/11 anniversary, about suspicions of al-Qaida planning and military coordination and about J. Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya and UC Berkeley alumnus who was killed in the attack.

I was first shocked, then angry. They say there’s a cycle of emotions people go through following a crisis or traumatic event — I think the next one is grief — but I just stayed angry. Angry at Libyans for allowing this to happen, angry at the world for its hate and its treachery, angry that I now had to go to my Egyptology class. I went, and I didn’t hear a word spoken by anyone about what happened only hours before.

The Daily Californian’s lead headline the next day was about Stevens. That’s when I learned he was a Berkeley graduate — and it hit home hard. Stevens wasn’t just a faceless emissary of American power overseas — he was a person like everyone else here in Berkeley, simply trying to make sense of life as he lived it. He wasn’t so different from me or you after all.

The Obama administration says it’s taking care of the problem. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured Americans that the United States stands for freedom of religion and against needless violence of all kinds. But it felt like an empty response, like there was nothing to be done about such tragedies. It felt hollow.

The recent events in the Arab world pale in comparison to the mother of all terrorist attacks 11 years ago — but in the area of American Middle Eastern foreign policy, hollow and empty are recurring themes. After Sept. 11, 2001, then-president George W. Bush could have asked for anything. The whole nation was enveloped in the anger I experienced three weeks ago. So many friends, family and neighbors had died. The country was prepared to support, serve and sacrifice for the American war effort in any way.

Instead, Bush asked Americans for their “continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” Where there might have been a grand narrative, a story about pain and loss turning into collective triumph, there was shopping, shopping and more shopping. There was business as usual, consumerism as culture and our quintessentially American materialistic self-absorption. Don’t forget the mall, America; the White House will take care of the terrorists.

The next president of the United States, whomever he will be, should ask a little more of the people he represents.

Perhaps the men who stand ready to take the helm of this country for the next four years should know a few things about the American people. We may seem easily distracted and shallow, but our attention span can last longer than a few days. We might appear frivolous, but we can be solemnly determined as well. We might appear divided, but we are one people.

Chris Stevens believed this, I believe this and I think the students of the University of California believe this.

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected]