It's understandable that many Americans are asking why the United States should continue to build diplomatic relationships and help fund the governments that have toppled tyrants across the Middle East and North Africa.

The attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya -- which killed four diplomats, including U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens -- as well as the assaults on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen, were tragic. The perpetrators need to be brought to justice. And the newly installed governments in each nation need to vigorously condemn the violence and mount aggressive efforts to ensure it is not repeated.

On Wednesday, several conservative members of Congress, as well as Kurt Bills, the GOP-endorsed Senate candidate from Minnesota, called to either suspend or end aid to several nations.

That would be a terrible mistake. It is in America's best interest to remain engaged with the governments and citizens of the region. Failure to do so would be counterproductive, said Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group, which on Friday issued a detailed analysis and recommendation on Libya.

"It would do precisely what you don't want to do, which is to isolate these countries and fragile institutions and those leaders who want their countries to go in the same direction that we want them to go," Schneider said. "This kind of response helps the spoilers and hurts the moderates."

This does not mean business as usual, however. There are key strategic areas that U.S. policymakers should emphasize.

For instance, in many cases our foreign aid and technical assistance should be refocused on rebuilding law-and-order infrastructure. Unlike under previous regimes, however, internal security efforts must conform to international norms and reject the well-documented abuses seen in the past.

The United States must also amplify that its citizens and government are not anti-Muslim. While this has already been a consistent, bipartisan message, it has all too often been drowned out by extremist voices in the Mideast.

We also need a much more effective strategy in dealing with counterproductive, but constitutionally protected, speech here at home. Just as individual Egyptians can create an international incident by storming an embassy, individual Americans can incite violence, too, which appears to be the case with the offensive film that sparked outrage in Egypt. (Evidence is emerging that in Libya the film was used as cover for an attack coinciding with the anniversary of 9/11.)

Like another recent flashpoint -- an obscure Florida pastor threatening to burn a Qur'an -- more hateful, intolerant displays await, all easily disseminated via the Internet. Their creators need to be made aware that with freedom comes responsibility, and that their incitement can lead to conflict and even death. But because there are likely to be similar provocations, U.S. diplomats need a more effective, proactive strategy of mitigating the impact.

We expect better from our politicians, too. Mitt Romney's awkward and misleading attempt to score political points with the tragedy was a low point in a presidential campaign replete with them.

Romney's unwillingness to let politics stop at the water's edge was especially insensitive to the friends and families of the envoys who lost their lives protecting our values abroad. Our leaders should honor their sacrifices -- not attempt to capitalize on them.


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