The anti-Islam video that set off attacks against American embassies and violent protests in the Muslim world was a convenient fuse for rage. Deeper forces are at work in those societies, riven by pent-up anger over a lack of jobs, economic stagnation and decades of repression by previous Arab governments.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, these newly liberated nations have become battlegrounds for Islamic extremists, moderates and secularists, all contending for power and influence over the direction of democratic change. These forces and the attacks may be beyond the control of American foreign policy, no matter what some might want to believe.
Plenty of Islamist leaders, and Al Qaeda affiliates, are eager to exploit unrest for their own purposes. One particularly destructive force is Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief who rallied a huge anti-American demonstration in Lebanon. He is undoubtedly trying to revive his own popularity, badly damaged by his alliance with the brutal Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
The anti-American extremists who murdered Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues in Benghazi, Libya, or went on rampages in other cities have reinforced the worst fears of those who see Muslims mainly through a prism of intolerance and hate. The extremists have also done serious damage to their economies; tourism and businesses cannot grow in chaos and insecurity.
Instead of demanding that their governments deliver needed jobs and housing, the protesters focused on a crude video promoted by hatemongering fanatics in the United States. With the news media mostly state-controlled in the Arab world, the idea of the United States government refusing to censor offensive anti-Islam material on free speech grounds remains inexplicable to many Muslims. On Wednesday, a French magazine published vulgar caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, provoking a new wave of outrage.
In 2009, President Obama wisely sought rapprochement with Muslims. Speaking in Cairo, he endorsed an approach of mutual respect and promised that, while he would never hesitate to confront extremism, America never would be at war with Islam. He also challenged Muslims to establish elected, peaceful governments that respect all their people. Few would have predicted then how many Arab nations would now be struggling to meet that standard. As troubling as they are, the protests should be seen in context. Most of the crowds were a few thousand people or less. And many leaders — the Libyans and Tunisians, especially, but also the Turkish prime minister, the grand mufti in Saudi Arabia and, belatedly, Egyptian leaders — condemned the violence and promised to beef up security at American embassies and consulates. They need to keep speaking out and also publicly explain to their people why a relationship with the United States even matters. The Libyans who tried to save Ambassador Stevens certainly saw value in those ties.
Mitt Romney and the Republicans have leveled preposterous charges that Mr. Obama has been weak and apologetic. They have offered only confusing and often contradictory assertions in place of a coherent alternative. They haven’t gotten the message that Washington cannot, and should not, try to impose its will on the fragile Arab democracies.
But it would be wrong to retreat from supporting people in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt who are committed to building democratic governments and pluralistic societies based on the rule of law as some in Congress urge. The United States has to stay engaged in whatever ways it can.