Anti-American violence sweeping the Muslim world has brought a sobering reminder in the West that the heady revolutions of the "Arab Spring" that removed entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have yet to bring democracy and stability to the region.
The United States played an especially important role last year as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Moammar Kadafi lost power after decades of autocratic rule. But the leaders who have succeeded them have not yet measured up as reliable Washington allies amid mounting pressures by radical Islamists seeking to stake out a dominant role for their religion.
Muslims angered by a crude anti-Islam video produced in Southern California by a Coptic Christian zealot have poured into the streets of major cities in at least 20 countries. The eruption of unrest and vandalism has been directed against U.S. diplomatic missions, schools and commercial icons such as KFC and McDonald's.
The demonstrations and destruction were instigated by Islamic militants, many linked with Al Qaeda, who are attempting to steer the volatile societies emerging from the Arab Spring toward Islamic law, known as sharia, and their narrative that only violence, not political change, will solve age-old problems of economic disparities and sectarian tensions, several Middle East experts said.
"The Arab Spring is still in motion. It's not over," said Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, observing that the revolutions have brought both positive and negative changes.
The positives include large numbers of young, liberal-leaning activists struggling for more democratic elections, transparent government, better economic conditions and social equality, Husain said. On the negative side, the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's new political hierarchy and the rising influence of Islamists in Tunisia and Libya have compromised the rights of women, ethnic minorities and adherents to religions other than Islam, he said.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi finds himself caught between "competing constituencies," Husain said. Moderate Egyptians want better relations with the West, while conservative Islamists are attempting to whip up anti-American fervor by casting the 14-minute online trailer of the obscure movie disparaging the prophet Muhammad as evidence of American disrespect for Islam.
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Kori Schake of Stanford's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, sees the recent violence as a stumble along the path toward democracy by inexperienced leaders of countries in transition.
"We need to be very careful not to overreact to the incidents of the last couple of days. I think these were incidents that were opportunistically taken advantage of by anti-American forces, and in the case of Libya by jihadists in order to try and discredit the positive path those countries are on," said Schake, a professor of international security studies at West Point and a former National Security Council official under President George W. Bush.
She praised Libya's newly elected leaders for their immediate denunciation of the violence that killed four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and the government's concession that it needed help in disarming radical Islamist militias still wreaking havoc in the country.
"We need to be a
little patient that countries in transition to democracy can sometimes get it
wrong," Schake said of the initial failure by Egypt's Morsi to denounce the Tuesday
attack on U.S. missions in Cairo and Benghazi. "We need to weight his score by degree of difficulty. He's new at this. He has no models to follow."
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Some blame the spate of anti-American violence on Washington's new strategy of redirecting diplomatic energies from the Arab world to the Far East.
"There's a feeling that we've lost our way, that there's not that much support for democratic uprisings in the region now," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "There's a sense that the pivot from the Middle East to Asia is turning our backs on the Middle East, that we're running on auto-pilot there."
The United States needs to get more engaged in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where about 20,000 people have been killed in the conflict stemming from President Bashar Assad's repression of a rebellion now in its 18th month, said Pletka. She advocates tying U.S. aid to Egypt to progress in building democratic institutions and ensuring security for U.S. diplomatic representations and businesses in the most populous country of the Middle East.
What role the United States should play in guiding the transitioning countries toward their revolutionary objectives is a question of balance, others note.
"A big part of our hesitation, the look-before-you-leap attitude, comes from lessons learned after 9/11," said Brian Katulis, an expert on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East at the Center for American Progress.
The United States was too quick to send troops into Iraq after the terrorist attacks, he said, and deeply disappointed in their expectation "that this democratic tsunami was going to wash across the region."
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Photo: Libyan followers of the Ansar al-Sharia militant group chant anti-U.S. slogans Friday in Benghazi, Libya, one of at least 20 cities where Islamists vented anger over a crude video denigrating the prophet Muhammad. Credit: Mohammad Hannon/Associated Press