When the Danish Cartoons affair broke in 2005-6 there was considerable pressure on the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to issue a condemnation and apology. Demonstrating considerable statesmanship he nevertheless repeatedly said that ‘You cannot apologise for something you have not done.’ When so-called ‘community leaders’ insisted on seeing him he refused because he, as the Prime Minister, was not responsible for the contents of a Danish newspaper. The Danish press is not only free, but separate, from the Danish government. Rasmussen’s belief was that the sooner anybody who was unaware of this became aware of it the better.
Fast forward to 2012 and we seem to have yet another set of eruptions in the cartoon/film/book wars. This time somebody who may or may not be an American may or may not have made a film which may cause offense to some Muslims but which nobody appears to have seen. Nevertheless various crowds have used this as an excuse for violence which could yet worsen.
It also seems possible that one of the people who supported the film, or might in future support the film in some way, is Florida Pastor Terry Jones (he of Koran-burning, rather than Monty Python, fame).
And what is the American response to this? Well among other things the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey has phoned up the crazy Pastor and tried to talk him down.
I am well aware of – and sympathetic with – the fact that significant numbers of American military and diplomatic personnel are deployed in a number of very hazardous areas around the globe. And I realise that the main aim of General Dempsey and the rest of the American political and military leadership must be be to have as few American troops and other nationals killed. But what a disastrous and misjudged intervention General Dempsey’s phone-call is.
Across much of the Muslim-majority world there are not only a thousand conspiracy theories, but all sorts of imagined chains of command and ideas of how such things work. Polling as well as plenty of anecdotal evidence tells us that very common misperceptions do not need a helping hand from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Many people will now either be confirmed in the idea, or introduced to the idea, that the highest ranking officer in the US Armed Forces can at any moment stand down a film-maker or one of his supporters. And if such a leader can stand such a figure down, then surely they can also stand them up?
When the next film/cartoon/article/book/picture/documentary comes out and General Dempsey fails to stop it, there will be many people who will take the lesson that this must have been one which the US military backed.