The violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East may be the result of a “perfect storm” of politics, religion and anti-Western sentiment in newly emerging governments, a longtime diplomat speculated.
Ryan Crocker, who served in embassies throughout the Middle East and most recently was ambassador to Afghanistan, said protests over slights to Islam, whether real or imagined, are not a new phenomenon in the Muslim world. They aren’t strictly anti-American, he added; they’re anti-Western.
But this week’s protests come at a time when many Middle Eastern governments are still in their embryonic stages after the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Those governments aren’t fully established and don’t have fully trained and equipped security forces to face down the protests before they grow into mobs.
“A mob is the most frightening and ferocious weapon of mass destruction,” said Crocker, a Spokane Valley native who returned home after retiring a second time from foreign service in July.
While the educated people in Libya, Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world know the U.S. government is not behind a movie that apparently criticizes Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, those aren’t likely to be the ones involved in the protests.
More likely, the protesters are poorly educated, possibly even illiterate, and get most of their information at their mosque. “They may be all too ready to believe Christian-Western conspiracies against Islam. The Crusades were the day before yesterday to the radicals.”
Libya, where protesters burned down the consulate in Benghazi and killed four Americans including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, has always been a concern for its radical elements, Crocker said: “Some of the most lethal al-Qaida fighters come out of Libya.”
Stevens was likely at the consulate in Benghazi, rather than the embassy in Tripoli, because that city was the “center of gravity” for the Libyan revolution and important to key elements of the new government, Crocker said: “A good ambassador spends a lot of time on the road.”
The two met as young foreign service officers decades ago, and “tag-teamed around the region,” Crocker said. Some officers are good at the Washington, D.C., aspect of the job, others are good at fieldwork in foreign countries; Stevens was good at both, he recalled.
“But his heart was in the field. He took the toughest Middle East assignments,” Crocker said. “If it was bad, his hand went up first.”
When rebels began the effort to oust Moammar Gadhafi, Stevens was a “critical voice in Washington,” he added, making the case that the United States could, and should, intervene on behalf of the struggle.
It’s too soon to tell yet exactly what happened in the events leading up to the burning of the embassy, and the thorough investigation will take weeks, Crocker said. The United States needs to work with the Libyan government to discover what happened, and stay engaged in the country rather than pulling back its presence and assistance, Crocker said.
“To punish all of Libya would be exactly what our enemies want,” he said.