Although U.S. officials said they were still trying to determine who had carried out the assaults, signs pointed to radical Islamists as the likely perpetrators. The attacks offered a vivid reminder that despite more than a year of turbulence that has produced a more democratic Middle East and North Africa, violent extremists remain a potent force. And it is still unclear whether the new governments in Libya and Egypt are able, or willing, to confront those bent on attacking U.S. interests.
In Cairo, hundreds of demonstrators, some throwing stones, gathered near the U.S. Embassy late Wednesday and security forces fired tear gas to disperse them.
In a statement delivered in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials in Benghazi would be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.
Whatever the outcome, Obama said, the United States “will not waver” in working with the Arab people and their new governments. He emphasized the continuation of an outreach policy that began even before the uprisings that last year drove longtime U.S. allies in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen from power, overthrew Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, spurred protests against entrenched autocrats throughout the region and sparked an ongoing civil war in Syria.
In his June 2009 “new beginning” speech in Cairo, Obama pledged to treat Muslims with respect and to recalibrate the U.S. role in the region. He promised to be a more honest broker in the Arab conflict with Israel than he believed his predecessor had been.
But since the heady days of spring 2011, when the U.S.-backed resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was followed by the U.S. killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the course of reform in the Arab world has been uneven.
In remarks Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized that only a “small, savage group” was responsible for the Benghazi attack, not the Libyan government or people. But as al-Qaeda and its allies have repeatedly shown, even small groups can wield major influence.
If nothing else, the new crisis appeared likely to cement Obama’s determination not to intervene militarily in Syria. “It will certainly give pause, or should give pause, to people who are pressing for a kind of involvement that you’ve got to back up” with significant force “to be successful,” Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) , chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview.