Spurred by reports of an anti-Islam film originating in the United States – The Innocence of Muslims – that mocks the prophet Muhammad, tragic violence continued across the Middle East much of last week. The aggressive anti-US protests that have followed attacks at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya starkly illustrate the challenges of engaging with a changing Middle East.
Some American lawmakers have called for the Obama administration to respond to this violence by cutting off US assistance to some of those countries where violent protests have broken out. While this frustration is understandable, US disengagement would almost certainly undermine these fragile states at a critical moment in their transitions. This, in turn, would harm US interests in supporting stable democratic transitions, while undermining moderate and constructive local actors who are key change agents in the region.
The importance of continued US engagement is perhaps clearest in Yemen, where protesters stormed the US embassy in Sanaa on Sept. 13. Such violence underscores the turmoil already gripping that country as it grapples with the dual challenges of a major humanitarian crisis and a difficult political transition after decades of dictatorship.