One of the main dangerous consequences of unrest in the Middle East would be the retreat of the US into isolationism. The region is volatile - and we don’t know who would seize influence after Washington’s exit.
The magnitude and meaning of the recent revolts and protests in the Middle East cannot be compared with those that exploded in 2005 after the publication of cartoons in the Danish newspaper “Jyllands-Posten.” Seven years ago, disorder was allowed to spread in the Middle East under a policy of “benign neglect”: various Arab presidents were under domestic pressure and refused to intervene. The same policy also applied in anarchist Lebanon. We now have evidence that some governments sought advantage from the clashes: they abstained from deploying security forces to the contain the mobs in order to avoid displeasing radical factions. As a side effect, they also sent George W. Bush a clear message about the fallout of his controversial military interventions. For better or worse, unrest in 2005 occurred within a situation of political order.
The Middle East of today is in a post-revolutionary phase, and the new round of clashes is more dangerous and significant. They cannot be interpreted as a mere reaction to a specific offense - any pretext could have been leveraged as justification to set embassies ablaze. Over the past years, Western media have targeted the Islamic faith repeatedly, but none of these episodes have been met with a similar level of outrage. Just think back to episode 201 of the popular cartoon series “Southpark” - aired in 2010 - that presented Mohammed in a bear outfit to avoid “drawing” him. The same year, American cartoonist Molly Norris had the superfluous idea of setting up an “Everybody draw Mohammed Day.” Last August, a group that associated with the German right-leaning “Pro Deutschland” movement was authorized by a German court to show a Mohammed sketch in front of a mosque. A few fatwas were issued - now considered a medal of honor by anti-Islamists from around the world - but US embassies in the Middle East carried on without major disturbances.
We can explain the latest round of protests as an expression of political dissatisfaction. They demonstrate that radical Islam is not feeling adequately represented by the Islamic “reformist” factions that dominate new governments in the region.
In foreign policy, anti-Americanism has surfaced again as a political issue, just like it did during the first epoch of Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s. Within this context, the lack of an American role and strategy in the Middle East becomes apparent. Washington can only try to defend itself against criticism. Indeed, most Western leaders have condemned the violence, among them Angela Merkel and Mario Monti. In contrast, the leaders of the Middle East have kept quiet.