There's still a lot we don't know about the anti-American violence that has wracked the Middle East for the last two weeks -- especially the degree to which it was orchestrated by organized terrorist groups. In particular, the Obama administration's contention that the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya began as a demonstration against an anti-Islamic film clip and then spontaneously escalated to mortars and rocket-propelled grenades seems far-fetched.
But even without knowing the full story, some conclusions are inescapable:
• A more democratic Middle East isn't the same thing as a more pro-American Middle East. In fact, it might be the opposite. The unpleasant fact is that even a Middle Eastern dictatorship run by a blood enemy of the United States, like Moammar Gadhafi's Libya, may be suppressing a popular tide of even more profound anti-Americanism.
President Obama spent more than a billion dollars last year lobbing missiles at Gadhafi, all supposedly in the name of democracy. His payback: a U.S. consulate reduced to a smoking ruin, with the corpses of four American diplomats inside. Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia, three of the countries where the United States applied fierce pressure to help oust authoritarian governments during the so-called Arab Spring, now host some of the most implacably hostile anti-American movements.
•Don't believe that it's all George W. Bush's fault. The people in the Middle East certainly don't. When the White House changed hands in 2009, one of the most confident predictions of President Obama's team was the calming effect he would have on foreign relations, especially in the Middle East. Getting rid of Bush's cowboy hat and treating other countries like respected equals would make a huge difference.
So how did that work out? The most popular chant of the mobs thronging streets throughout the region last week was "Obama, Obama, we are all Osama." It turns out that people in the Middle East, unlike the American chattering classes, are more impressed with deeds than words.
All the smooth talk in the world won't distract them from the fact that Obama has turned the skies over the region into a killing field. In Pakistan alone, he's unleashed nearly 300 aerial drone strikes (six times as many as were launched during the whole of the Bush administration) and inflicted a death toll numbering in the thousands. Cowboy is as cowboy does.
• Let's not kid ourselves -- there really is a clash of civilizations. In 1996, the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote a book called "The Clash of Civilizations" in which he predicted that, with the end of the Cold War, the global conflicts of the future would be over culture rather than ideology. At the top of his list was the chasm between the Judeo-Christian influenced liberal democracy of the West, and the theocratic totalitarianism of the Islamic world. The recent chaos is further evidence that the cultural gap is growing more lethal by the moment.
The problem is that much of the Islamic world not only rejects Western conceptions of freedom but is willing to kill over them. Any perceived insult to the Muslim religion, no matter how trivial or even imaginary, is a death-penalty offense. In 1977, Muslim gunmen in Washington killed two people, seized several buildings and took scores of hostages in an attempt to force a ban on a film called "Mohammad, Messenger of God" that they hadn't seen but thought might contain religious insults. (It didn't.)
The list of violent responses to supposed slights to Islam has only grown since then: The death sentence against author Salman Rushdie. The murder of the Dutch director of a hostile documentary on Muslim treatment of women. The hundreds of deaths in rioting over Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed and the swimsuit competition in a Miss World contest in Nigeria. (One Muslim cleric even called for the beheading of all the contestants.)
When American Christians make tepid complaints that works of art that blaspheme their religion (Andres Serrano's infamous photo of a crucifix submerged in urine, for instance) shouldn't be supported with taxpayer dollars, intellectual America labels them depraved fascists.
Muslims killing people over sacrilegious art, however, draws a much different reaction. Suddenly former Obama Middle East advisers like Sarah Chayes and free-speech absolutists like Anthony Lewis and even Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer have discovered that insults to Islam aren't really covered by the First Amendment.
In this clash of civilizations, the West seems to have a lot of fifth columnists.