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José Ramos-Horta Headshot

Benghazi Was Not the Beginning of the End

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I share the civilized world's revulsion at the destruction being wreaked by anti-US demonstrators in the Middle East over the past two days, and in particular the savagery of the Libyan extremist militants murdering the US Ambassador. I also feel deeply for the Libyans, Egyptians and others in the Middle East whose hard-won hopes for democracy and a better life are being set backwards by the violence in their midst.

I echo the words of others that there is simply no justification. The Libyans would be still fighting a vicious civil war, slaughtering each other as the Syrians are today, if it weren't for the strong support from the US and others in the West that helped to bring about a speedy end of the Gaddafi regime.

But the tragedy of Benghazi and riots in Yemen do not signal the end of the Arab Spring. Nor is it an indication of any "failed policies," any more than it is justification for the shameful practice of political candidates in the US attempting to make points from a US Ambassador's death.

Setting aside the armchair generals who would throw the US into full-on war in the Middle East, there are limits to what the US can do in any given region and situation to influence the course of events and outcome. The current US administration has used that limited capability prudently and effectively, with well thought out strategies.

It has been more than 200 years since America won its independence -- long enough to forget that fragile countries coming out from under decades of oppression have a long walk to real democracy. Incidents and explosions happen along the way. It was not that long ago that Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected President, was firing cannons into the Russian Parliament. My country, East Timor (Timor-Leste), exploded in violence with angry mobs burning homes and shooting in the streets in 2006, four years after becoming a new democracy. Iraq is still spilling blood on that road.

Like Iraq, Libya and Egypt have the added challenge of extremists and Al-Qaeda remnants in their midst, who do not intend to go quietly into history. And these must be separated out from the demonstrators. In Libya the mobs were used as a cover for deliberate, targeted murder -- in the hopes, no doubt, of further inflaming the situation and destabilizing the country.

Each of the examples above had similar elements in their countries, attempting to profit in one way or another by creating mayhem. All had individuals who had been thrown out of power who had not forgotten, as well as criminal elements and external influences look for openings to gain a foothold in a fragile State.

The forces for democracy need serious support, and true leaders, to come out on top of such challenges. They will remain vulnerable, and the country will rest on a precarious edge, until the programs that bring stability can take hold.

Stabilizing these new democracies cannot stop with containing a mob or stopping bloodshed. Once violence is contained, peace must be built. It is built with education, with employment, with human rights education, with the citizenry starting to see a better life for their children ahead. But these take time. They do not come automatically with regime change. The challenge is to keep the instigators at bay long enough for it to happen.

In Timor-Leste one of our peace building priorities has been literacy. As Thomas Jefferson knew, democracy cannot function smoothly with an illiterate population. They are too easily manipulated and open to being inflamed by unsavory elements for political or financial gain -- as we have just seen.

While these young democracies attempt to get on their feet, an idiot American meth cooker who decided to call himself a filmmaker has just handed the extremist elements a birthday present.

Those who would attack Obama for an apology issued by an embassy staff member are either completely naive on foreign diplomacy or have forgotten their own education. What child in a democratic society has not been taught that with freedom comes responsibility, that if one exercises his freedom of speech to yell "fire" in a crowded theatre, he or she must bear responsibility for those injured or killed in the resulting panic?

Any person producing a film -- though the term may be over-complimentary -- such as this one knows the exact reaction it will create. It was not by accident that it was translated on YouTube into Arabic. He or she opened the perfect window for extremists to step through. Almost too perfect.

As one who knows the challenge of trying to walk a nation, however small, out of violence and oppression into a functioning democracy, I recognize the extreme challenge being faced by the administrations of Egypt, Libya and Yemen right now as they work to restore calm and decency, root out the extremist elements attempting to throw gasoline on the fire in their countries, and keep their countries on the road. While they struggle, all of us who enjoy freedom of speech and other basic human rights in our daily lives should be apologizing for the gross abuse of this freedom that just occurred, and the extreme setback it created.

This article was cross-posted on TheCommunity.com.