The other day I was on a talk show where the host asked me, "Are we better off now than we were before the Arab Spring?" And I said, "Who is we?" The furious attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in the Middle East have left many Americans feeling that the neighborhood was a lot safer when it was patrolled by pro-American generalissimos. But for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen -- the countries where citizens overthrew those hated rulers -- the demonstrations were a sideshow, if a mortifying one. The tumult offered a forceful reminder that "good for us" is not the same as "good for them."
I have always assumed that a more democratic Middle East would be good for the United States in the long run, but bad in the short run. George W. Bush was right when he said, in his second Inaugural Address, that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands" -- or at least he would have been right if he had said something less resonant, like "our security depends on legitimate government in the Islamic world." In the long term, good for them is good for us. In the mean time, however, freedom releases poisons as well as noble aspirations. One of those poisons, of course, is anti-Americanism.
Of course, there's nothing new about explosions of hostility to the United States in the Arab world; what's new is how far they're allowed to go. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was always prepared to stoke popular anger at Israel or even the United States, but his thugs would have broken up a demonstration long before it threatened the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The new government of President Mohammed Morsy, however, not only lacks the fine mechanisms of control available to Mubarak, but cannot afford to side with Washington against an outraged populace, as a dictator could. One quarter of the seats in Egypt's genuinely free parliamentary elections this past January went to Salafists with an explicitly Islamist agenda, and Morsy cannot ignore them as Mubarak ignored the more moderate Islamists in his own parliament. Ergo, the U.S. embassy gets trashed.
It would be nice, and of course it would be just, if leading figures stood up to the raging crowds, as Tom Friedman has demanded they do. But such honesty is likeliest to flourish where the political or personal costs are tolerable. Few public figures criticize the blasphemy laws in Pakistan because extremists have shown that they will kill people who do so. Libyan National Congress President Mohammed al-Megareif may have felt able to forthrightly criticize anti-American violence, as Morsy did not, because Islamists were roundly defeated in Libya's elections, and Salafists are a far less organized force there. And, despite the organized assault which led to the deaths of four Americans there, Libya is the only country in the Middle East where the United States has earned enough goodwill by its actions to override the inveterate anti-Americanism produced by long U.S. support for dictators or the widespread belief that the West is somehow responsible for everything bad. That's not going to change for a long time; what happened last week will happen again, with different provocations producing much the same ugly effect.
The temptation for the United States to disengage from the Arab world could become overwhelming. Look at Pakistan, where, despite $18 billion in military and civilian aid over the last decade, the United States is widely hated (and where the government declared a "Day of Love for The Prophet Muhammad Holiday" so citizens could wreak their fury without missing work). Only Pakistan's necessary role in the war in Afghanistan has prevented those funds from being drastically reduced; as U.S. troops draw down, so, inevitably, will the aid. A group of conservative Republicans has drawn up legislation requiring the Obama administration to submit a report on the embassy attacks in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen prior to a vote on aid to those countries; one of them, Rand Paul, has been holding up an omnibus spending bill over demands that the U.S. cut aid to Pakistan. So far, President Obama has not shown any sign of having second thoughts; and the administration, to its credit, has agreed to provide $1 billion in debt relief to Egypt, and has supported a $4.8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).