America and the Middle East: Murder in Libya
FOR many Americans the killing of Christopher Stevens, their ambassador to Libya, this week crystallised everything they have come to expect from the Arab world. In a country where the West only last year helped depose a murderous tyrant, a Salafist mob attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Mr Stevens and three colleagues. The trigger for this murder, the riots in neighbouring Egypt and the storming of the American embassy in Yemen? A tacky amateur video about the Prophet Muhammad that the Obama administration had already condemned. Why on earth, many Americans are asking, should the United States try to police a region, when all it gets in return is mindless abuse, blame for things it cannot control, and mob violence?
The slaying of Mr Stevens is hardly the only recent example of Arab dysfunction. Just to take the seven days prior to the killing: in Iraq scores of people were killed in bombings on one day and the vice-president was sentenced to death in absentia for alleged murder; in Yemen the defence minister survived an assassination attempt; in the Gaza Strip Israel killed six militants; in Tunisia extremist Salafists smashed up a bar that serves alcohol to the town where the Arab spring began; and most graphically of all, in Syria the death toll in the gruesome civil war continued to rise exponentially—to over 25,000.
On the campaign trail Mitt Romney has been clobbering Barack Obama for being too keen on the Arab awakening. Many conservative Americans associate it with hostile Islamists, like the Muslim Brothers and their friends who now run Egypt and Tunisia, and see it as a threat to America’s ally, Israel. Americans of all sorts are nervous about being dragged into Syria and worried about Iran getting the bomb. They are fed up with being described as anti-Islam when their country is in fact far more welcoming to Shia Muslims than, say, Sunni Saudi Arabia is. With their troops now mercifully out of Iraq, their efforts to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process going nowhere and shale gas reducing their dependence on Arab oil, surely it is time for them to leave the world’s least grateful people to make a mess of their lives by themselves?
This is a seductive narrative—and no doubt it will play even better on the campaign trail after Mr Stevens’s death (see Lexington). But it is deeply wrong in both its analysis and its conclusions. Many parts of the Arab world are in fact heading in the right direction. And in the parts that are not, notably Syria, the United States is more needed than ever.