The wave of anti-American unrest that rolled over numerous Muslim countries in response to a YouTube video has settled down. But the question of what it means for the United States' foreign policy remains.
Hopes for the Arab Spring have soured, with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power in Egypt -- and with the murder of American Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya. Some, such as the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, are saying that the best way to protect our national interest is simply to get out of the region. Our presence and our meddling, critics say, makes us a target for hostility.
But there are many reasons such a strategy wouldn't work -- and wouldn't make us safer.
U.S. actions -- including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the ongoing war on terror with its civilian casualties -- have undoubtedly caused anger in the Muslim world. But the causes of this anger are ideological as well as humanitarian. There's comparatively little outrage over mass slaughter by local regimes (few outside Syria seem to care that as many as 30,000 people have been killed by the government since last year's uprising). U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, which have reportedly killed between 500 and 800 civilians since 2004, have been blamed for anti-Americanism, yet during the same period, more than 14,000 Pakistani civilians and 4,500 army and police personnel have been killed by terrorists.
In a recent article in the American Political Science Review, scholars Lisa Blaydes of Stanford University and Drew Linzer of Emory University conclude that the strongest driving force behind anti-Americanism in Muslim countries is internal political conflict. The conflict is between proponents of secularism and modernization, and Islamists promoting religious and social authoritarianism. America, seen as a modernizing force, serves as a convenient outlet for the Islamists' anger.
Changes in U.S. foreign policy will not make this anger go away. In Yemen, one of the centers of the recent unrest, 46 percent of respondents in a 2011 survey regarded the impact of American military power as "very bad" -- but 56 percent said the same of American cultural influence.
As a superpower in retreat, America might well become the target of more hostility due to perceived weakness. To complicate things further, Johnson believes that the United States should remain committed to our alliance with Israel and to a defense of Israel if it is attacked. He also leaves open the possibility of using military force abroad to stop genocide as part of our values.
In a world where America has a global economic and cultural presence, U.S. interests cannot remain unaffected by aggressive authoritarian regimes abroad -- particularly when those regimes regard American influence as an intolerable intrusion. Should we remain passive if a foreign government seizes the properties of U.S. businesses? Or if American activists who run afoul of local laws by seeking to advance religious freedom, women's rights or gay rights are imprisoned or sentenced to death? Or if U.S. citizens are targeted for violence for making a movie deemed offensive by foreign clerics?
After Iraq, few can champion the dangerous arrogance of "nation-building" in faraway places with cultures very different from ours. But that doesn't mean we should avoid more limited, and more humble, actions to win friends and encourage social modernization in countries struggling to find their own path -- including Libya, where the anti-American rebels are a minority. Given the mess that is the Middle East, any U.S. administration can hope, at best, to muddle through with minimal damage. But when there is no safe exit, muddling through is the best option.