Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, and a Misguided Take on Soft Power

After an attack on the US embassy in Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement. "Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," Clinton said. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation." Her comments closely echoed a statement released by the Cairo embassy, which the White House said was not approved, prior to the attack on the embassy there.

The attack was made in response to an internet video which was produced in the US in which Islam was mocked in some way (I haven't seen the video nor read a reliable description of its contents).

Though Clinton started her statement by saying that "there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind," it is striking that while she 'deplored' efforts to denigrate religious beliefs, that her direct response to the attack itself was far less strong. Such a difference is not lost on those it was directed to, (while some would presume that 'Americans' or 'people of the world' would be the intended recipients of her message, the statement in question was undoubtedly targeted at those who might commit similar actions). While some might applaud her walk-softly approach, and while Clinton may have been compelled to back the previous statements of the Cairo embassy to some extent, it is clear that her statement did little to quell violence after another attack in Libya overnight resulted in the death of four Americans.

At the very least, and policy matters aside, Clinton's statements are surprising from a free speech perspective. While religious freedom is seen as a strong right in American society, speech is as well. Indeed, just as the religious freedoms granted by the Constitution are most oft needed by those who practice unpopular religions in unpopular ways, free speech rights are most often invoked by those with the least popular viewpoints. By their very existence, these freedoms will most often be appreciated by those whose views are in the minority at any given time. Clinton's focus on condemning speech as opposed to actions was misguided, not just under the 20/20 lens of hindsight, but as a general rule.

This isn't to say that the Obama Administration's move to soft power is all wrong, though some (likely including Mitt Romney, whether implicitly or explicitly) will use the attacks of the past few days as well as logic similar to that expressed above to say just that. However, there is a difference between soft power and outright pandering to those who wish America ill by making one treasured value subservient to another. Religious freedom is part of the rich fabric of American society, and one of the values Americans most frequently attempt to share with the world. However, freedom of speech is just as important, and Clinton's attack on an internet video, rather than an attack itself, was a poor miscalculation.


  1. Anonymous13/9/12 01:43

    I disagree. I don't think the state department's role is to export America's free speech values. Rather, it is to find common ground and build alliances on it.

    America is unique in the amount of speech it protects, and better for it. But ours is not te only possible balance to strike between speech and censorship (though I like ours best).

    So when speaking to Muslims around the world, many of whom live in countries where blasphemy is a crime, the Secretary sought common ground. She never suggested that the US supported censorship; only that it, too, disliked the speech at issue. That was both accurate and diplomatic.

  2. I appreciate you stopping by, and thanks for your comment. I agree 100% with your description of the role of State, your explanation of speech rights around the world, and with your assertion that Clinton's statements were accurate and diplomatic. Let me also be clear in stating that I have generally found Clinton to have done a marvelous job in a difficult role made doubly tough by the circumstances; she 1. accepted it after 8 years of American policy which, like it or not, was deeply unpopular around the world, 2. from a president with very limited FP experience who she knew would lean on her, 3. and who was not particularly friendly to her during a very tough primary campaign not so far in the past at that point.

    So far, so good. Where we disagree is on the execution. Your comment might be most appropriate with respect to the initial statement from the Cairo embassy. It was conciliatory and sought common ground, etc. However, Secretary Clinton taking on the conciliatory, almost apologetic tone put the administration she serves in a tough position.

    While it would be nice if the State Department could be able to serve the noble goals you describe, the reality of the situation is that it serves as a foreign extension of the president and his agenda. This is no truer than during a tough election fight, especially with respect to the Middle East, especially when the president is in the news for snubbing the Israeli PM, and most especially when an incumbent is trying to remind voters of his bona fides while asserting that his opponent is too light on the foreign front.

    Policy wonk readers can correct me if I am wrong as I am straying a bit into technical terms I haven't studied in some time, but I believe that this would be considered a realist approach to FP.

    Now, some may argue that Clinton WAS serving Obama's interests, that she was doing what he ordered. However, as the White House stated that it had not cleared the Cairo or the State Department statements prior to release, it would seem that there was at least some confusion between Foggy Bottom and Pennsylvania Avenue. The fact that Obama has made similar statements since does nothing to prove or disprove anything; it only suggests that a unified front is being put on now. Maybe a Bob Woodward book or some presidential papers a few years from now will make this clearer. For now, I can't help but think that something went wrong.

    It is also easy to say that Clinton's approach was wrong in hindsight and after Americans were killed. However, I think her statements were really inconsequential with respect to that situation. That mob was clearly out for blood, and was even possibly coordinated before her statements were made. I speak of it as a miscalculation pertaining to political reality more than any practical effect, at least in the very short term.