Arab Sprung

The Embassy Protests: A Week Later

09.18.12 1:15 PM ET

A week on and none of the big questions have been answered. Much of the coverage honed in on Romney's substance free "No Apologies" criticism and its effect on political polls. There almost seems to have been no crisis halfway around the world about which to wonder: What happened and what does it mean for U.S. foreign policy? Asked this weekend if the embassy protests were about the U.S., The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg answered with an uncharacteristic hippy-ish tone: "It's about everything. The truth is it's about everything. It's unfolding. It will be unfolding for a generation." That seems about right.

Looking at a crisis of this geographic breadth—just about the entire Muslim world, in this case—discourages easily identifiable, unifying root causes, but Robert Wright managed to pull together a few. Otherwise things played out locally.

In Egypt, conservative Muslim elements harnessed anti-Americanism for political ends, bulling the Muslim Brotherhood along—until Obama intervened. In Yemen, lingering resentment of tepid support for last year's uprising and very-much-ongoing resentment of a U.S. drone strikes there fed the protests. It's not clear anymore (if it ever was) that the attack that claimed four American diplomats' lives in Libya was pre-meditated and merely seized on the protest, part of which seems to have been just a copycat of Egypt. And then there was everywhere else.

Perhaps the most useful comparison so far arises from the protests (and destruction) in the Muslim world surrounding the 2005 Danish Mohammad cartoon. Marc Lynch notes the as-yet-unreconstructed Bush foreign policy was in full swing.  But things played out differently this time:

Last week's sudden eruption began in a similar way, but then took a different path. The initial steps look similar, from the discovery of an obscure media insult to Islam by opportunistic Islamists through the rioting outside Embassies. The rapid outpouring of popular outrage and sensitivity to insults to Islam look very similar as well. But equally interesting is what happened next: apologies and condemnation of the attacks (some more grudging than others) from elected leaders,  popular demonstrations in a number of Arab countries against the violence, and widespread pushback in Arab public debates against the attempt to hijack popular anger.

Lynch strikes an ultimately cautious, optimistic note: by the end, authorities came out against the protests and even sometimes violently clashed with demonstrators to clear the crowds. "Nobody thought that fundamental political change would be easy, that transitions would proceed without turbulence, or that anti-American feelings had simply vanished," he concludes. "But perhaps the end of the crisis matters more than its beginning."

The overall crisis, though, might not see its end for generations. And "everything," as Goldberg put it, is a lot of stuff to hash out. What America should about it not only remains any body's guess, but might not even be in American hands.