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Real Clear Politics - Despite Turmoil, U.S. Must Not Retreat from Mideast

Op-Ed

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By Senator Mark Udall

An offensive anti-Islamic film has incited violent protests in the Middle East, including an attack that resulted in the tragic deaths of American diplomats in Libya. As abhorrent as the video may be, there are no excuses for this kind of violence. As we grapple with the senseless and indefensible attacks, Americans are left questioning what it means for our relationships in the region and our foreign policy more generally. Already we have seen partisan interests exploit these overseas protests and murders to drive their political agendas, but Americans deserve an honest assessment -- not empty talking points.

Like all Americans, I was outraged by the attacks on our embassies in North Africa and the Middle East. But some members of Congress who have long opposed foreign aid are now using the tragedies as an excuse to unravel our assistance in the region. As a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, I know how critical this region is to national security. And while I understand the urge to cut off aid to countries where extremists are stirring protests against us, American engagement, assistance, and resolve are needed now more than ever.

Like it or not, we have vital national security interests in North Africa and the Middle East. The United States must remain engaged with these emerging democracies if we wish to retain influence and encourage forces of moderation to prevail. Those extremists who are inciting violence don't want moderate Islamist groups to have a voice -- so they are waging a battle within Islam, as well as against the West. We must remember that the people who committed these cowardly acts of violence do not represent the mainstream views of the people of Libya or Egypt, much like the anti-Islamic video does not reflect the views of Americans.

Equally as disturbing, we have also seen politicians here at home use the murders of our diplomats as an excuse to launch opportunistic political attacks. Gov. Romney's team has even speciously asserted that the protests and tragic violence would not have occurred if he were president. First and foremost, politics should end at the water's edge. Anyone aspiring to be America's commander in chief should know that we must send a unified message to the world in a time of crisis.

While not living up to that standard, Gov. Romney has also failed to offer any distinguishable policy alternatives, and the belief that he would have prevented the violent protests shows he doesn't understand the problem. The fact of the matter is that we are confronted with a tinderbox of anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-modernist sentiment that can be ignited with a single spark -- as we saw happen in this instance with a strange, poor quality video created by a fanatic. We cannot defeat extremism with poll-driven political one-upmanship.

Instead, Americans deserve to hear their leaders offer concrete proposals and tell the truth. The truth is that grievances in the Middle East long precede this administration -- consider September 11th and other terrorist attacks on Western interests in the decades before that. There are no easy solutions to these deep-rooted problems. But there is a course of action we should avoid: We should not fall prey to impulsive isolationist policies.

Given our vital interests in the region, we need to increase U.S. engagement and continue to try to shape events instead of allowing them to shape us. As leaders in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere try to balance the influence of competing interests, both domestic and foreign, we need to do our best to help these nascent governments understand why a stable relationship with the United States and the West is in their best interests -- just as we Americans understand how enduring relationships with these countries are essential to our own national security interests.

Mark Udall, who serves on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a Democratic Senator from the state of Colorado.


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