BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The timing could hardly have been worse. Just as the United States was raking through the grief and anger that always accompany the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it faced still more violence aimed at its personnel and property in Egypt and Libya.
The reaction was stunned disbelief, in addition to the very real outpouring of rage and sorrow at the loss of life at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. This was a country that the United States had fought to help; the US president had gone out on a limb for the embattled rebels, and according to media reports, had committed far more in resources to ousting Muammar Gaddafi than has been openly reported.
With the protests in Egypt that resulted in the breaching of the Embassy walls and the desecration of the US flag, the reaction was more one of sinking disappointment. This was the flagship of the “Arab Spring,” the country that had given such hope to the world just a little over a year ago. Now, it seems, with the Muslim Brotherhood in charge, extremists would negate the promise and send the region spiraling down into chaos.
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And today, with protests spreading across the Islamic world, and with less than two months left before Americans go to the polls in a bitter and hard fought presidential election, the events that began on Sept. 11, 2012 could very likely play a major role in the outcome. If anything can convince the razor thin layer of undecided voters to turn one way or the other, it would be an attack on our soil or our people.
The results of the election will also play a crucial, if not determinative role in the future of US-Mideast relations. The candidates have radically different philosophies regarding the US position in the world, and how it should treat its allies and its enemies.
As the tragedy continues to unfold in the Middle East, leaders there will doubtless be watching the American response with as much breath-bating anticipation as the US electorate.
Experts are almost united in calling for the United States not to abandon the Middle East.
“Don’t give up on the Arab Spring,” pleads Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, in an article published Wednesday.
Hamid concedes that it will be tempting to just draw a line under the Middle East as a failed experiment.
“For ordinary Americans, the understandable reaction is one of anger, even betrayal,” he writes. “We liberated them — and now they besiege our embassy and kill our ambassador. When I woke up today, a friend asked me half-jokingly, ‘What's wrong with Muslims?’”
But that is a destructive reaction, he insists:
“It should be obvious that disengaging from the Arab world is what both Salafi extremists — not to mention Arab dictators — want. The more the United States disengages, the more room they will have to grow in influence and power, and the more commonplace events like those of last night will become.”
The United States cannot afford to “let the terrorists win,” he exhorts, and must, instead, “redouble its commitment to the Arab Spring.”
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But this will be a hard sell in a country searching to redefine its place in the world.
While a strong and confident nation might be able to persuade its people of the need for patience and magnanimity, a country coping with economic crisis and the results of foreign misadventures needs to feel strong and in control.
This is the message that Republican challenger Mitt Romney is shouting loud and clear as he campaigns for the presidency, losing no opportunity to attack his rival, President Barack Obama.
While Americans were still coping with the news of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’ death in Benghazi, Romney was castigating the president for “apologizing” for American values.
On the stump Thursday in Virginia, he went even further. At a rally in Fairfax, Virginia, he accused his opponent of showing weakness, and gutting US defenses with cuts to the Pentagon budget. He would remedy these failings and restore American prestige, he affirmed.
"The world needs American leadership. The Middle East needs American leadership," Romney said. "And I intend to be a President that provides the leadership that America respects and will keep us admired throughout the world."
Obama has tried to maintain a more nuanced position, promising justice for the slain, but refusing to defend the vile and offensive amateur film that allegedly sparked the violence.
The crisis has every chance of blowing the entire campaign wide open.
“The radical right wing which currently dominates the Republican Party … will characterize any approach taken by Mr. Obama as too weak and conciliatory,” wrote Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.“ And they will likely use this incident to characterize the rising Islamist parties in the Arab world — from both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups — as dangerous potential enemies of the United States.”
Romney and his team will need no convincing. In his book “No Apology,” the former Massachusetts governor spends significant time detailing the threat from Islamist groups.
“Without question, the jihadists … share a common overarching goal: violent holy war on America and the West, the destruction of Israel and the Jews … and, ultimately, the defeat of all non-Muslim nations.”
Which man triumphs in November will be a central factor in how the drama plays out.
“If … Mitt Romney ends up winning the presidency, this incident could end up shaping much of his approach to Islamist groups,” Salem maintained.
As long as Islamists continue to gain power in countries across the region, the new American president will have little choice but to deal with them. This represents a serious challenge, he allows, especially for a candidate whose animosity towards Islamic fundamentalism is well known.
“It is important for the United States to engage these governments, encourage moderation and hold them to standards of democratic practice, pluralism and human rights,” writes Salem. “At the same time, however, the United States should strive to prevent cultural or ideological currents at home from generating patterns of outright hostility and animosity against US policy and involvement in the region … It is a difficult balance to strike, but one that is indispensable to successful US diplomacy in the "new" Arab world.”
The United States may be ill prepared for the challenges it will face, experts say, and this will be a major factor in negotiating the very treacherous future:
“It is one thing to topple a leader; it is another thing to then secure the country,” said Robert F. Danin, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was speaking in an interview with CFR’s Bernard Gwertzman.
“It is clear that these were Islamist groups in Libya who attacked the consulate. It shows how dangerous a place Libya is today … and the government needs to be supported and strengthened, to be able to take control of its territory, and to disarm all of these renegade groups.”
This is not a task that Americans will relish in these difficult times.
What might make things even more difficult is the response of other international actors, such as Russia.
The Kremlin can barely hide its schadenfreude at the problems its erstwhile Cold War foe is facing in Libya and Egypt. It is still smarting from skirmishes with Washington over Syria, where Moscow supports the besieged dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
“Russia has long argued that the West should not support popular uprisings against dictatorships in the Middle East, lest Islamic fundamentalism take hold,” wrote The New York Times.
As Yevgeny Y. Satanovsky, president of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow, told the Times, “American leaders should not expect ‘one word of sympathy‘ from their Russian counterparts. They lynched Gaddafi — do you really think they will be thankful to you?”