US-Arab Relations will be Defined by Reaction to Attack

Source: Getty
Op-Ed National
The killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya will send shock waves through U.S.-Arab relations far beyond the specific Libyan context and place pressure on the Obama administration in the middle of its re-election campaign.
Related Media and Tools

The killing of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other embassy staff, will send shock waves through US-Arab relations. It is likely to have effects far beyond the specific Libyan context and place pressure on the Obama administration in the middle of its re-election campaign.

It is no secret that Libya has gone through a period of great instability since the fall of the Qaddafi regime last year. The new government and armed forces have yet to succeed in disarming militants or re-establishing their authority throughout the country.

In the recent past, however, this insecurity did not result in a total breakdown of order. Indeed, Libya has managed to hold elections and is moving forward with its transition to democratic rule.

Regardless, Libya - like other Arab countries grappling with instability - has seen radicalised Salafi and jihadi elements gain traction. They had a strong showing in recent elections, and some have managed to form militias capable of posing a threat to domestic foes or, in this case, a foreign embassy.

The security threat posed by such radicalised militias comes as no surprise to Libyans, and a process is already underway to rebuild the national army and disarm irregular militants, whose numbers currently stand in the tens of thousands. It is clear, however, that such an undertaking will probably take years to complete.

It is important to note that Salafi Islamists represent a minority in the Arab world. Many have joined the transition process, either as rebels or as participants in electoral - and ultimately democratic - politics. Incidents like the reaction to the film whose anti-Muslim sentiments may have sparked the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi -reminiscent of the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005 - enable these radicalised elements of Arab society to project power and influence far beyond their numbers.

In Libya, the United States was generally viewed favourably by the rebels thanks to its role in the Nato no-fly zone and the removal of the hated Qaddafi regime. The Libyan government has excellent relations with the United States, other western and eastern powers, as well as countries in its neighbourhood. No doubt it deeply regrets the security breach that resulted in Tuesday's tragedy and will do its best to tighten security and guard against similar events in the future.

In the United States, the deaths will reverberate in the loud echo chamber of the US presidential election campaign. The fact that the incident occurred on the anniversary of September 11 only serves to make matters much worse.

There is little doubt that the crisis and the Obama administration's handling of it will be election issues. So far, the reactions of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama reflect the administration's general approach of moderation. They have studiously avoided any inflammatory statements or rhetoric that could cause the situation to get out of hand.

But the radical right wing which currently dominates the Republican Party, and which includes many neo-conservatives from the days of George W Bush's administration, will characterise any approach taken by Mr Obama as too weak and conciliatory. And they will likely use this incident to characterise the rising Islamist parties in the Arab world - from both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups - as dangerous potential enemies of the United States.

Indeed, if the Republican candidate Mitt Romney ends up winning the presidency, this incident could end up shaping much of his approach to Islamist groups, which continue to win elections and join parliamentary and governing coalitions across the Arab world.

In this context, it is important for the United States to engage these governments, encourage moderation and hold them to standards of democratic practice, pluralism and human rights. At the same time, however, the United States should strive to prevent cultural or ideological currents at home from generating patterns of outright hostility and animosity against US policy and involvement in the region.

It is a difficult balance to strike, but one that is indispensable to successful US diplomacy in the "new" Arab world.

Governments both in the Arab world and the United States need to work quickly to prevent this crisis from escalating. Eleven years ago, Osama bin Laden succeeded in setting the course of western-Muslim relations since. Let us hope that the militants of Benghazi - who represent only a minority of Libyans - do not end up dictating the course of western-Muslim relations for years to come.

This article was originally published in the National.

End of document

About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


Comments (6)

  • NellieBly
    Why is it Americans response to the murder of 4 innocent men is what will determine relations between you? Is Libya's response (or lack of ) to a stupid film clip that 99.999% of Americans knew nothing of acceptable?
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • earl
    The root cause of the problem here is religion- and to solve it we must look into the basis of the Islamic faith which believes the Name of God is Allah- and in other religions such as Christianity-they believe the name of God is Yahweh, Jehovah and Jesus- We can see that this division is caused by their knowledge of God's Name - Christianity , Judaism and Islam base their teachings on the Old testament in the Bible. What if all call on the one Name of God? there will be no division anymore- and what if all call on the One true name of God? Then there will be no more religious division and true peace will reign. What is the true name of God in the Bible? visit and discover for yourself the true name of God in the Bible. This is not to promote any religion but to awaken all peoples to the true name of God for this useless religious division to end once and for all.
    Zechariah 14:9 (NIV)
    9 The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.
    It is prophesied that a day will come that the whole world will worship the true and only Name of God- Peace is indeed possible here on earth.
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
    • AbdulKhaleq replies...
      For educatoon's sake, let me explain what is not known or not understood by especially Christians, and that is Muslims and Jews have the same name of God, which is what in Arabic is termed 'Allah', which comes from Jesus' language that he spoke in i.e. Aramaic, the name 'Elli' which Jesus uttered at his Crucifiction ("Elli, Elli, why have you forsaken me?")- it is just a mispronunciation of that name of God and the way it is pronounced in Arabic Alla, or Allah as more commonly spelt in Latin characters. That is the true Biblical name of God used in the Christian Bible if Jesus' own usage should be the reference. As for the Old Testament use of the name of God, the name Allohim, or Ellohim, depending on which Latin spelling you prefer since both spellings are foreign to Hebrew, this name is also used by Muslims in every prayer they make to God by calling 'Allahom' (written in Arabic script 'اللهم '), which is the same as the Hebrew 'Allohim' as both Arabic and Hebrew are from the same language root, the language used by their ancestor Abraham. As for the name 'Yahweh', again Muslims also use this term referring to God as 'YaHuwa' meaning 'He Who Is' i.e who exists, which is the Arabic meaning. So there is no difference in the name God Almighty between Judaism and Islam, and also between these two religions and Christianity, in the sense that Jesus used that very same name of Allah as Elli, most likely the way he pronounced it could have been the same but Latin characters to which it has been rendered distorted the original word of God.
  • Hunter
    Religion... The root of evil. Religion is like a poison.
    One person says something like " god is watching all" or something people believe this and spread it . Eventually there will be many terrorists,wars, and human trafficking.
    We must abolish religion before we all die.
    I'm American in the mid east. I fear that they will either kidnap me or murder me.
    For the producers of this ridiculous film, please take the film down before hundreds of thousands will die.
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • Wisdom should prevail
    The Israeli American film maker who started all this about creating the extremely anti-Islam, anti-Arab, video against this great Prophet of Islam who even non-Muslims, including Jewish academic, commentators of historical renown hold in the highest steem, should realize that Amercian-Arab relations are there to grow from the seeds of the Arab Spring to establish democracies in the Arab World, and this is good also for the State of Israel in the long-term, in spite of the short-sided view that Israel and fanatic Jews hold about the democratic future of the Arab that it would undermine Israel's relations with the United States and the West and therefore Arab-Ametican relations should be undermined and thwarted.
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • colchuck
    Don't have to worry about right wingers, because ole gunslinger Romney started his mouth before engaging his brain ha,ha,ha! Five stars to the Libyan people who through these thugs out!
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.