[See also my article, "Western Leftists Back Islamists; Arab Counterparts Are Their Victims"]
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark — “What difference does it make?” — regarding how the motive of the terrorists in the attack that killed four men, including a U.S. ambassador and two former Navy SEALs, isn’t important will always be associated with her.
She added that the only important thing was to punish those responsible. Other than a number of obvious points, two things deserve more consideration.
First: the motive of an attack is always important.
The Obama administration represented the attack as being a response to an anti-Islam video made by an Egyptian-American. If that were to have been true, the implication is that the attack was the fault of America in some way. A change in U.S. behavior — sensitivity, concessions, apologies, different policies, not identifying revolutionary Islamism as a threat and pretending it is a marginal, deviant movement — is thus what’s needed.
Critics tend to see the attack’s motive as being sheer hatred of America, or something along that line. In fact, the motives are somewhat different, and extraordinarily important:
– To promote Islamist revolution by hitting at the United States, thus showing that America is weak and can be defeated as a way to inspire more people to engage in violence and revolutionary activity.
You can call this the strategic motive. As an example: at the time of Iran’s Islamist revolution, many Iranians feared the United States, seeing it in almost superhuman, superpower terms, as eager and able to overthrow any regime in Tehran that was too militant. Thus, the movement should be cautious. Rejecting this idea, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wanted to prove that America was weak and could not stop his movement from doing anything it wanted — and this is how he portrayed the hostage crisis in the U.S. embassy. A parallel case was that of Osama bin Laden and the September 11th attack.
The message: Islamism is the movement to back, it is winning victories over the infidels, and it can triumph totally.
– To show that terrorism works in injuring the enemy and thus is superior to what others do, including the political maneuvering and mass base-building of the Muslim Brotherhood. This can be called the tactical motive. The message: terrorism is superior to the methods used by other groups, so let’s keep doing it and increasing the number of attacks. In this specific case, the United States easily helped overthrow Qaddafi, but it is helpless against our willpower, will to die, and methods.
– To put the focus on hatred of America as a way to gain more support for Islamism as — to use contemporary rhetoric — hatred of the “other.” This can be called the ideological motive. The message is: those non-Muslim, non-Arab Americans are the true enemy, and any government that is on good terms with them is a traitor.
– To demoralize their relatively more moderate rivals. The message is: give up, don’t help the Americans. If they won’t protect themselves, they certainly won’t save you. That’s why the Libyan government will do little or nothing to help catch those responsible. It is more afraid of the perpetrators than it is of the United States.
These points have been repeatedly stressed by Islamist leaders — Ayman al-Zawahiri comes to mind — in his writings. He and others spoke of how killing fellow Muslims would make the revolutionaries unpopular, but killing Israelis or Americans would win them popular backing.