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September 16, 2012

Column: Middle East unrest is part of a wave of democratic upheaval

The phrase “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind when reviewing the waves of public protest and revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Long-established dictatorships are collapsing, which is an extremely promising development of historic importance.

Of immediate concern, however, is the despicable murder of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, information manager Sean Smith, and security personnel and former Navy SEALs Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty. Three more U.S. diplomats were injured. A rampaging mob armed with heavy weapons destroyed the American consulate there.

Another mob invaded the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, though no deaths or serious injuries have been reported.

Still unclear is the degree to which these incidents were spontaneous or coordinated; considerable media commentary has highlighted a bigoted anti-Islam film produced within the United States.

Diplomatic service has become more dangerous since World War II, as traditional concepts of immunity faded in our turbulent age. Stevens was the first serving U.S. ambassador to be killed in more than 30 years.

Ironically, the U.S. has played a prominent role in toppling dictatorships in both Egypt and Libya. The long-lasting Hosni Mubarak autocracy in Egypt and the Moammar Gadhafi terrorist state in Libya have been replaced by fragile, uncertain but representative governments. The regional trend began in Algeria and Tunisia in early 2011.

In this context, the brilliant scholarship on democracy by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington is instructive. His influential 1996 bestseller, “Clash of Civilizations,” argues that the contemporary world is defined by a variety of increasingly intense conflicts between fundamentally different cultures. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the consequent struggle with Islamic-based terrorism and the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq all seemed to provide evidence for his thesis.

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