Nasser Nasser, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Has the Arab Winter arrived?
It's a question analysts in Washington are asking as angry demonstrations spread across North Africa and the Middle East to protest a video ridiculing the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Those skeptical of promoting democracy in Muslim countries and those who fear a rapid decline in American influence may see their suspicions validated. Even among those who've championed the end of Middle Eastern autocracies, the level of anti-American rage wrought by the film has been ominous.
U.S. embassies and consulates have been breached this week in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia — the same four countries to rid themselves of decades-long dictatorships in what became known as the Arab Spring of revolutions last year. In Libya, the only place the U.S. used its military to ensure regime change, the violence was the worst, claiming the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy staffers.
"This will be a Rorschach test," said Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department specialist on the region. "Those who say we need to be more involved in the Middle East will point to the outpouring of sympathy for the United States. You'll have others who are more cautious who might say that this is a mess and we need to hunker down and reduce our footprint there."
The unrest from Morocco to India is rekindling a debate that has been ever-present within the U.S. government and has raged in U.S. foreign policy circles since a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire and set off the Arab Spring of protests in January 2011: Is the new reality of greater freedom alongside greater instability good for the Muslim world? Is it good for American interests?
"The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a repatriation ceremony Friday for the remains of the Libya consulate victims.
By and large, the Arab Spring governments have responded to the ongoing crisis well. The presidents of Libya and Yemen apologized to President Barack Obama. Egypt's new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi held back initially from condemning the embassy siege, but after a call from Obama, demanded respect for diplomatic missions and denounced Tuesday's deadly attack in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi during a seven-minute address Friday on state television.
But with the exception of Libya under dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the U.S. could long rely on cooperation from these governments. What changed in the unprecedented wave of pro-democracy demonstrations last year, and what was foreshadowed in Obama's speech in Cairo after becoming president, was the new American appeal to the Arab streets, the commitment to working with ordinary citizens long suppressed by their own national authorities and long frustrated by the friendly relations their governments enjoyed with the United States.
"This president's approach to what has been called the Arab Spring, to this unrest, has been to lay out a set of principles and support for human rights, and to make clear that we support a process of nonviolent political and economic change and reform in the region," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
He said cooperation with Arab countries in transition was advancing U.S. national security interests.
The record has been mixed, however.
U.S. relations with Egypt have dived dramatically since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, so much so that Obama said this week he doesn't necessarily consider the two countries allies. In Yemen, al-Qaida took advantage of a year of internal fighting to make inroads across the country. After defeating Gadhafi, Libyans sent pro-American moderates to power but are still struggling amid a wash of weaponry and militias that remain unchecked.
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