The death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens at the hands of an anti-American terrorists immediately brings forth two possible responses: the U.S. doubles down on its efforts in Libya and other Arab Spring countries, or it scales back or eliminates its efforts in the region.
There is an oft-forgotten reality of the rapid globalization of the last two decades, and that is that many lose sight of the vast cultural and societal differences that still exist between nations and peoples. In Libya for instance, what sort of a people are we dealing with? How do we even define them? As a state, perhaps a new nation? How do they understand America and its allies? More importantly, how do they understand themselves? Have they, in their efforts to oust the former authoritarian regime, gained a new sense of national identity? These are crucial, difficult questions American foreign policymakers must grapple with.
Now, the issues with the aforementioned responses cannot be said to originate simply in the inability of the people of this country to comprehend the cultural and societal difference between themselves and others. The recent spike in murders of U.S. soldiers by Afghan troops thought to be allies is another side of this same coin. It is only natural for the average American to feel viscerally about these deaths because ideally, at least according to our understanding, the men who have died like Ambassador Stevens are serving to help the very people that have taken their lives. It is not out of ignorance or misunderstanding that we feel this way, but because we believe so ardently in the goodness of our intent in helping to guide these countries.
The protests even in Westernized countries such as Germany show this is not simply a Libyan, or an Arab, issue. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali rightly notes in her Newsweek article, the back-and-forth between Western nations, the advocates of free speech and conscience, and fundamental Muslims has produced a long, unhappy history. Though she is openly and vehemently opposed to any argument for synthesis between Islam and the West, in this case she rightly argues we Westerners must simply stay the course. That is, we cannot simply abandon the great number of people in Muslim countries who have begun to feel the stirrings of democracy and self-government. Ostensibly, Ambassador Stevens’ role in the largest sense was that of an advocate of democracy and a friend to the continuing efforts of the Libyan people to concretely effect the regime change they have so desperately struggled toward for over a year now. It has since become partially clear that those who attacked the U.S. embassy were simply not Libyan. That he was killed in his role does not for a moment change the fact that a sizeable portion of the Libyan people rose against Colonel Gaddafi and his forty-year reign of oppression, and that America supported their efforts.
Neither of our gut reactions — “Nuke ‘em!” and “Wait, why the heck are we over there?” — give any sort of tangible solution; foreign policy is not a game of concrete solutions. Iraq was never going to simply become a liberal democracy, and neither was Egypt, and neither will Libya or Syria. This criticism is leveled not out of anti-Middle Eastern fervor, nor out of an higher-than-thou arrogance; the reality is democracy and its forms take time to become instilled in a people.
The Arab Spring has presented the West with myriad questions where foreign policy is concerned, some longstanding, others seemingly novel. One of the most fundamental questions America and its Western counterparts must now begin to answer is, ironically, the question of free choice and elections. How do those who shape foreign policy, and who supported the Egyptian regime- change, now address U.S. interests in a country where an Islamist organization has democratically risen to power? Do we as Americans support, in principle, the right of peoples everywhere to elect their own government, even if it means they will elect governments opposed to American interests, or in some cases governments violently opposed to the very idea of America and its allies? No clear and immediate answers present themselves. What we can say, however, is neither instinctual response to this latest Muslim hostility will provide anything resembling answers to the questions being posed by the countries emerging from the Arab spring. The iconic British maxim is appropriate -- keep calm, and carry on. Let us continue to support the peaceful expansion of democracy, and let us hope that we can continue to be blessed enough to be represented by men of the caliber of J. Christopher Stevens.