On Dec. 2, throngs of students began assembling outside the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, chanting "Death to America" and burning President Carter in effigy. After the embassy staff, led by CIA station chief Jack McCavitt, managed to escape through an adjacent apartment complex, Libyan students and security officials stormed the compound, carting away boxes of documents they believed to be sensitive. According to Yaroslav Trofimov's The Siege of Mecca, however, the Libyans got mostly cashiers' records, publicly accessible Foreign Service regulations, and the embassy's "Learn a Foreign Language" tapes in Italian.
But if there were an ounce of humor in the Libyan fiasco, it was eclipsed by the immediacy of the Iranian threat and the seriousness of America's image problem in the Muslim world. "[T]he Iranian revolution was not isolated," as Trofimov put it. "The fervent anti-American propaganda coming out of Tehran was making Muslims worldwide see the U.S. as the enemy of their faith." And worse than that, radicals were learning that there was little price to be paid for standing up to the Americans. As the historian Bernard Lewis recalled, "If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there by no punishment, but there might even be some reward."
The question now, as the world tries to make sense of the fresh wave of anti-American attacks sweeping across the Middle East, is whether the United States faces anything like the ideological force it stared down in 1979. For now, the answer appears to be no. In 1979, the success of the Iranian revolution breathed new life into Islamist movements across the world that dreamed of establishing an Islamic state. Even Sunni extremist groups, whose puritanical "petro-Islam" was anathema to the revolutionary Shiite fervor emanating from Tehran, were jolted awake by Ayatollah Khomeini's meteoric rise. Establishing an Islamic state independent of the West no longer felt like a distant possibility.
Today, that experiment has clearly failed. Those who still seek to reestablish a caliphate -- al Qaeda and a smattering of fringe Islamist organizations -- are struggling to remain relevant in the post-Arab Spring world. The advent of democracy in parts of the Middle East and the triumph of mainstream Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia portends a very different future than what Khomeini envisioned in 1979. In such an environment, anti-Americanism will doubtlessly remain a fact of life -- particularly because of its political salience in nascent democracies. But the days when extremist ideologues preaching "death to America" could attract university students by the thousands across the Muslim world might well be over.
The circumstances of Tuesday's attacks provide further reassurance that this is not 1979 all over again. In Egypt, the ranks of demonstrators swelled outside the embassy only after football "ultras" -- upset that Egypt's Premier League season had been delayed a month following their attack on the Egyptian Football Association's headquarters -- opted for an alternative venue to vent their frustrations. (A video posted on the Facebook page of Egypt's Al-Hekma channel, titled "Ultras Zamalek tear the American flag in front of the embassy," shows the football faithful gleefully scaling the flagpole.)
The attack in Libya, moreover, while certainly more worrisome because of its deadly consequences, probably has more to do with the new government's inability to control local militias than with anti-Americanism run amok. Indeed, Libyan officials from across the political spectrum condemned the attack, with President Mohamed Magariaf leading the way: "We refuse that our nation's lands be used for cowardice and revengeful acts. It is not a victory for God's sharia or his prophet for such disgusting acts to take place," he said. "We apologize to the United States, the people of America, and the entire world. We and the American government are standing on the same side, we stand on the same side against outlaws."
It is a far cry from the tirade broadcast by the official Libyan Jamahiriya News Agency following the embassy attack in Tripoli nearly 33 years ago: "Upon the students' breaking into the embassy, the staff fired toxic gases believed to be used only by the military, confirming that the embassy employees are military personnel," railed the radio broadcaster, who went on to blame the Americans for the "injury of several Libyan students." For all the instability and chaos of the Middle East today, here's the good news: It's not 1979 anymore.