09/21/2012 05:54 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

Keep Calm and Carry Forward

One thing I've learned over the years is that, whenever you're being hit with a series of events that would make you think you have a crisis on your hands, it's important to take a step back, a deep breath, and try to think about what's happening with the big picture and the long run in mind -- and wonder for starters whether this really is a crisis. The violent riots that have been going on at U.S. embassies and other places in the "Arab Spring" countries in particular, leading to the death so far of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and four other State Department personnel, are certainly cause for alarm, but what's really going on here?

Some, such as Michael Koplow at Foreign Policy, suggest the riots reflect a "...fundamental disagreement between what the United States views as a basic right and what many Muslims living in Arab states view as a basic right. Where Americans prioritize freedom of speech as a value to be cherished and upheld no matter the circumstance, the Arab world sees sanctity of religion as a value that cannot be violated in any instance. While this is not new, the explosion in communications technology and the resulting dissemination of information, no matter how obscure or trivial, pushes this divergence of worldviews to the forefront."

Others, like the Hoover Institution's Fouad Ajami, in a Washington Post op-ed, contend that Arab and Muslim petulance -- and the violent expressions of offense -- are temper tantrums covering their own failure to reconcile the impact of globalization:

The ambivalence toward modernity that torments Muslims is unlikely to abate. The temptations of the West have alienated a younger generation from its elders. Men and women insist that they revere the faith as they seek to break out of its restrictions. Freedom of speech, granting license and protection to the irreverent, is cherished, protected and canonical in the Western tradition. Now Muslims who quarrel with offensive art are using their newfound freedoms to lash out against it.

Among the more sanguine voices, the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Anthony Cordesman warns against the temptation to frame it as a clash of civilizations -- Christianity versus Islam, the West versus the (Middle) East. Radical Islamism is indeed a global insurgency, but it's not our hearts and minds they are trying to win:

We in the United States and the West are marginal targets of opportunity in the struggle between Muslim extremists and secular and moderate Islamic governments. The fact remains that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common core set of values, and the last thing we need is to ignore these common values and focus on anger and revenge in ways that will prevent us from working with our natural allies in the Arab and Muslim world.

Robert Kaplan, when speaking about his new book, The Revenge of Geography, at the Center for a New American Security the other week, noted that America's obsession with Al Qaeda and radicalism in the Middle East overlooks the rise of a new bourgeoisie in Arab Spring countries, with middle-class values much closer to our own than those displayed in the images on television or YouTube.

Cordesman and STRATFOR's George Friedman point out that radical Islamists are looking precisely to broaden and expand a conflict within a religion and a regional culture to a polarized struggle between religions and cultures. "For the Libyan jihadists," says Friedman, "tapping into anger over the video was a brilliant stroke. Having been in decline, they reasserted themselves well beyond the boundaries of Libya. In Libya itself, they showed themselves as a force to be reckoned with -- at least to the extent that they could organize a successful attack on the Americans."

The Arab Spring has unleashed all kinds of pent-up energies and issues, among them opportunities for the jihadists to hijack the process of change before the moderates can find their voice and tone the cacophony of fanaticism. So, we need not be surprised -- after all, extremist rhetoric grabbing far more than its share of the collective narrative should not be all too foreign within our own shores, either.

No doubt all the above explanations have a share of the truth. Indeed, the criticisms of the Obama administration to have failed to seized the day a bit more when the Arab Spring was breaking out have some validity, but as Cordesman says: "It may be the duty of the opposition candidate to criticize and challenge, but not at the cost of America's strategic interests, lasting relations with key nations in the Middle East, [and our] ...enduring strategic interests."

However, while we may have enduring strategic interests in regions like the Middle East, that doesn't mean we have to have enduring approaches, especially when they have long proven counter to those enduring interests. As Koplow puts it:

While the Obama administration has desperately tried to be on the right side of history when it comes to the Arab Spring, years of American support for Arab dictators has left the United States with zero credibility. Decades of U.S. missteps in the region cannot be undone in the span of a couple of years, particularly when Arab countries like Egypt feel that the United States has nakedly used them to further American ambitions and interests. On top of the myriad of historical resentments, the United States is viewed with deep suspicion for supporting democratic movements in some places, such as Libya and Tunisia, but propping up the government in others, like in Bahrain. This places the United States in a completely lose-lose situation, where it jeopardizes long-term strategic assumptions and relationships in places like Egypt as it sides with protesters and parties calling for democracy yet gets no credit for it from publics that view the United States as hypocritical -- or worse, as an enemy.

One thing we have not yet fully grasped is what we should have after the catastrophe in Iraq -- that our assumptions about what happens after we intervene, especially with hard power, to unseat a tyrant have little factual basis: that deposing a dictator will automatically bring about liberty and an improvement in the lives of his former victims; that those who opposed him will themselves not act like he did; that they will coalesce into a stable government; that national self-determination leads to democracy; and that this can all be done with a minimum of moral and material commitment from the outsiders who, directly and indirectly, acted as agents of change.

The militarily-backed elimination of tyranny does not, willy-nilly, lead to a free society. As any golfer will tell you: it's not the kinetic action of hitting the ball but the follow-through that determines whether you stay on the course. We Americans didn't learn that very well in Iraq. Now, our European friends - with us leading from behind - have had their moment of humility in Libya. And if we're all not careful, we'll do the same thing in Syria. Friedman is right: "...if you wage war for moral ends, you are morally bound to manage the consequences."

Any power or group of powers that decides to intervene on behalf regime change has essentially three options: one, occupy the country until the transition is sustainable, as we did in Germany and Japan; two, enable a transitional administration under international mandate; or, three, not much of anything coherent or serious. Obviously, the first is rarely feasible or desirable. The third is pretty much what we have been doing, and we can see the results. Our only option, then, is a more seriously supported international effort at state-building and fostering civil society.

No matter who wins in November, we need to change our whole approach to how we interact with the world, let alone intervene, in places like the Middle East. We have to think bigger picture and longer term, and if we intervene, we have to be prepared to make the commitment to the follow-through. We also have to find greater balance between soft and hard power, emphasis diplomacy and development more than defense -- talk the talk a little less and walk the walk a lot more, and understand that much of this process of change is not within our span of control, being careful not to overestimate our real ability to shape things.

Because over there matters over here, this is all not just the job of the government -- the relationships between peoples is becoming as important, if not more, over the long run than the relationships between states. Human security and not just national security. Global citizenship means living our values more consistently. Beyond the democratic values of tolerance and free speech, it means taking as much open offense to a video clip that goes out of its way to insult the leading figure of a religion followed by two billion people as making the politically incorrect display of facial makeup of a professional baseball player a "teachable moment" requiring disciplinary action. We have to be more vigilant about exercising responsibilities as well as rights.

Our global safety and security doesn't begin and end in Washington. It begins -- and ends -- with us.