Protests at U.S. diplomatic facilities -- some featuring violence -- began breaking out Tuesday in Egypt and have spread to dozens of capitals across north Africa, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Initial reports about Tuesday's attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya -- in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed -- indicated the attack followed protests outside the consulate but there have been subsequent reports the attack was planned in advance, independent of anti-American protests.
Protests have become less energetic Saturday -- notably in Egypt, where the government initiated a crackdown on protests in Cairo. But senior White House officials say they have determined the outbreak may signal the beginning of a sustained period of turmoil, with diplomatic and political consequences, The New York Times reported.
The issue presents the administration and President Barack Obama's re-election campaign with a foreign policy crisis that features widespread images of the U.S. flag being burned and angry demonstrators at U.S. embassies.
Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the optics could make Obama look like "the second coming of Jimmy Carter, and that's not something the campaign wants to see."
"After Obama's success in killing Osama bin Laden, in killing Qaddafi and in not blowing up Iraq, I think Obama and his aides figured we've got this box pretty well taken care of," Rubin said. "Now that gets thrown up into the air."
Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass said: "The reality is the Middle East is going to be turbulent for the foreseeable future and beyond that. It's going to present the United States with any number of difficult choices. It's also going to be frustrating because in most instances our interests are likely to be greater than our influence.