By the time the Arab Spring was in full flower, Obama was well into a savagely successful military and drone program that took out Osama bin Laden and much of his top leadership, thus decimating the worst of the violent jihadists. At the same time Obama withdrew from Iraq, robbing al-Qaida of bin Laden’s old “far enemy,” the United States. Thus the Iraq withdrawal, the marginalization of al-Qaida, and the overturning of Mubarak, Moammar Qaddafi in Libya and other dictators together created a new atmosphere, opening up new channels of expression and supplying for the first time in decades an alternative to violent jihad. Experts point to fractionalizing of the Brotherhood and Salafist groups, which are being forced to govern pragmatically in the jostle for influence and power in their home countries.
Despite the horror of Stevens’ death under assault from a group of protesters and possibly militants, in truth more Islamists have been working with the U.S. than against it, including Egyptian President Morsi. In response to the attacks on U.S. buildings, the Islamist government of Egypt is walking its own fine line. “What you have right now is a Muslim Brotherhood president that has a decent government to government relationship with the U.S.,” says Brown. Thus, Morsi has called for prosecution of the makers of an anti-Muslim video that helped to trigger the violence this week—but nothing worse. “What they’re trying to do is express outrage but make sure it doesn’t interfere with anything” such as aid or Morsi’s tacit support for the Egypt-Israel treaty, Brown adds. “The Brotherhood calls for [anti U.S.] protests, but it’s clear they will be centered around mosques, but not on the U.S. embassy.”
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told National Journal Thursday it was important to “disaggregate” the administration’s general policies from the violent protests this week. “Nothing the administration has done has led to the protests in Cairo recently or the incidents in Benghazi or Sana’a [Yemen]. Those are sort of outside events based on a little-known film used to incite people,” he said. But in fact polls show high approval ratings for the U.S. in Libya and even Morsi has moved to protect U.S. buildings and personnel in recent days.
Even prominent neoconservatives such as Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer have outraged their former allies on the right by saying the U.S. has no choice but to engage the new Islamist political parties formed by the Muslim Brotherhood (which formally renounced violence decades ago) and other former jihadist groups. Another prominent figure on the right, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official who is deemed one of the most astute analysts of jihadism, wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently that it is unavoidable that “Islamists who braved the wrath of rulers and trenchantly critiqued the moral breakdown of their societies were going to do well in a post secular age. What is poorly understood in the West is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries. As counter intuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region.”
America, in other words, may simply have to endure an unpleasant Islamist middle stage—and Arabs may have to experience the failure of extremism in government, as the Iranians have—before the Arab world finally enters the modern world.
It’s not just Arab politics that have proved more complex than the campaign rhetoric often makes out. When it comes to Iran as well, Romney has criticized Obama for weakness in trying to negotiate. But in fact Obama dropped his “outstretched hand” approach to Tehran in 2010, and since then has applied tougher sanctions and underwritten covert action.
Was Romney out of line this week? It’s clear that the ugly temper of U.S. presidential politics has long since moved on from the days when Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican senator who reluctantly embraced the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, declared that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” American politics today is borderless. And so—depending on whom American voters believe on the Mideast, Obama or Romney – it’s entirely possible that the violence raging far away could affect this year’s presidential election far more than anyone imagined.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect timing for Romney's news confernence. He criticized the Obama administration's response at a news conference on Wednesday morning.