Libya, where Canadian and allied warplanes tipped the military balance against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's brutal regime, was supposed to be a shining example of U.S. President Barack Obama's careful and considered use of the big stick of superpower military intervention. Barely a year later, Libya's fragile, fledgling democracy can't control raging militias, Islamists are on the rise and America's vital help is being repaid in blood and fire.
It wasn't just angry mobs that torched America's consulate in Benghazi. Roving and uncontrolled bands of heavily-armed gangs, loyal only to clan and sometimes extreme jihadists still hold sway in much of Libya. Apparently one of those, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, attacked the U.S. ambassador's car as he and other staffers fled the besieged American compound in Benghazi.
The latest anti-American violence erupted – in Libya and in Egypt – when Muslim protesters enraged by the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizing fool, a fraud and a madman, demonstrated and later attacked diplomatic compounds.
The furor over the film – produced in California and promoted by an extreme, anti-Muslim group – may spread, just as Muslim fury over Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet raged worldwide a few years ago.
But there are larger issues facing Mr. Obama as he treads softly in the dangerous sands of still-unfolding Arab uprisings toppling dictators and threatening ruling regimes.
In Libya, the president opted to send in the warplanes – albeit 'leading from behind' and letting British, French and Canadian fighter-bombers make most of the attacks while U.S. forces provided most of the critical support and intelligence for the NATO-run operation. In Egypt, Mr. Obama used the powerful links between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries to pressure the general in Cairo to oust long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak.
In Syria, Mr. Obama has so far sat on the sidelines as the worst violence yet in any Arab Spring revolution, with more than 17,000 dead, has turned Syria into a sectarian bloodbath.
What is starkly clear is that the outcomes, even in Egypt and Libya, of the revolutions may take years to unfold. Just as the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran is still playing out more than 30 years later, hopes for a quick, painless transitions in Arab countries where ruthless regimes – often propped up by the West for decades – have been swept aside are unlikely to be realized.
Rather, the United States and its western allies face a long, arduous process of rebuilding relations across the Muslim world. Mr. Obama rightly boasts of making good on his promise to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but American remains engaged across the Middle East.
To many, U.S. policy looks muddled. Lack of progress on a Palestinian peace settlement and continued support of the rich, oil-producing regimes in the Gulf more than outweighs the limited military intervention that helped topple the universally hated Col. Gadhafi or pushed out a feeble President Mubarak in the minds of many Arabs.
For Mr. Obama – or Mitt Romney if he wins November's election – helping that Arab world transform itself may define the presidency over the next four years.
The killings in Benghazi starkly illustrate the potency of Islam as a political force, not only capable of toppling authoritarian regimes but also igniting raging violence against real or imagined wrongs.
As the latest anti-American violence erupted, U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton sought to assure Muslims that the Obama administration had nothing to do with the film. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation," she said.
But across much of the Muslim world, fragmentary, sometimes untrue, rumours and reports of Koran-burning by U.S. soldiers, desecration of mosques, lampooning of the prophet spread like wildfire in a world of social media and YouTube.
In the absence of any clear, over-arching U.S. policy objectives – rather than seeming to arbitrarily pick and choose among which regimes to back, which to deplore and which to actively topple – anti-American anger will simmer and flare.