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While most of the American media has focused on Mitt Romney’s bungled response to the embassy attacks in Libya, there’s been very little discussion about why the riots occurred in the first place. If there’s any common ground between Romney and Obama, it’s that the violence was a senseless attack, one caused by Islamic fundamentalists angry about a crude YouTube video depicting Muhammad as a perverted buffoon.

In an Onion article lampooning the incident, there is an article with a picture of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu religious figures engaged in an orgy with the headline “No One Murdered Because Of This Image.” In a little over a day, it has already been retweeted over 7,000 times and received 71,000 Facebook likes.

The easy explanation for the Libyan rioters is that they are religious fanatics, incapable of being reasoned with. It’s the same line of thinking embraced by the American public ever since Islamic terrorism became an issue: they hate us for our freedoms. However, the debate we should be having isn’t what the latest incident says about them, but what it says about us.

Here is the current American policy in that part of the world: if the U.S. considers someone in the Middle East a terrorist, we have the right to kill that person, and anyone in their vicinity, with a drone missile. If the U.S. has suspicions about you, we can abduct you in broad daylight, stuff you in a prison cell halfway around the world, conduct “enhanced interrogation techniques” to torture a confession out of you and never give you a chance to defend yourself in a trial.

The U.S. military, on a whim, can invade any country in that part of the world and depose its government. There will usually be some pretext — human rights violations in Libya, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — yet when we arm some of the most brutal dictatorships (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen) in the Middle East, the American commitment to freedom and human rights looks inconsistent at best.

However, whenever someone mentions the idea of “blowback,” they are usually dismissed as a part of the “blame America first” crowd. This goes to the heart of Romney’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy: if you acknowledge that the other side has a legitimate grievance, you become a sympathizer who doesn’t “stand up for American values.” In effect, acknowledging any immorality in America’s foreign policy makes you unfit to conduct it.

The real question, though, isn’t whether America’s role in the Middle East is moral but whether it’s cost effective. The basic logic behind U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern politics is that we need to ensure a steady supply of oil, the backbone of our economy. This is why American troops aren’t trying to bring freedom or democracy to sub-Saharan Africa. In that context, is Islamic resentment and the occasional terrorist attack merely the cost of doing business?

To put it another way, how much would gas need to cost per gallon for the American way of life to be destroyed? And how much are we willing to sacrifice in order for it to continue? The shared conceit of both political parties is that American values and interests overseas are synonymous, but if they aren’t, which ones do we sacrifice first?

As long as we refuse to grapple with these types of questions, we allow the decision to be made for us. The U.S. spends more on “defense” than the rest of the world combined: is this still a tenable position when both parties are asking us to sacrifice entitlements and pay higher taxes in the new age of austerity? It does no good to trust the judgment of people within the military/industry complex in Washington, D.C. Their funding, and ultimately their jobs, depends on the answer always being yes.

Both Romney and Obama would like any foreign policy debate in this election to center around who is the more capable steward of American military force overseas. Left unsaid is whether the American Empire actually benefits the average American. That’s the debate we should be having, whether or not the president acknowledges the complaints grievances of the Libyan protestors doesn’t actually matter.