Step up, don't step back, from Middle East challenge

After last week's attacks in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and the assaults on other U.S. embassies and small but angry protests throughout much of the Muslim world, some Americans could be tempted to disengage from the Middle East. That would be a tragic mistake.

Those who attacked American compounds in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East do not represent the great majority of people who are striving to improve their own lives — not cut short the lives of others. They are looking to America for help in building stability and peace in their countries.

Today, the United States has a chance to stand for its principles and stand with the majority in the emerging democracies of the Middle East. It is not time to pull back or lash out. It's time to double-down on the shirtsleeves diplomacy exemplified by Ambassador Stevens and countless other quiet American heroes who fight every day to encourage the democratic transitions taking place across the region.

Those of us with roots in the Middle East appreciate America's support and sacrifices. Like many of you, we are asking ourselves: Why would Stevens be attacked when it was America that helped save Benghazi from destruction at the hands of Muammar Gadhafi?

The answer is that the vacuum created by relatively weak central governments in places such as Libya makes it easier for extremist elements to attempt to exert their will. Only continued strong diplomatic and humanitarian engagement and support by the United States will thwart those forces, including in my own country, Syria, where another great American diplomat, Ambassador Robert Ford, risked his life supporting the popular uprising against the Bashar Assad regime before he was recalled to the United States for his own safety.

The violence in Syria is instructive. The Assad regime has consistently defied the international community's efforts to bring about a diplomatic resolution. Instead, the government has turned its guns on its own people, resulting in more than 25,000 dead; tens of thousands more have been detained or tortured, more than 250,000 Syrians have fled the carnage and are now refugees, and 1.2 million more are internally displaced.

Iran, Hezbollah, al-Qaida and other extremists feed off this sort of chaos and have a vested interest in fueling it. They want Americans to lose their resolve, to soften their support for the Arab Spring, and to disengage from the region. Do that, and make no mistake, America will be trading one tyranny for another — a tyranny that could be exported.

There may always be varying levels of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, but what is important to know is that it is not deep or widespread. In fact, the turmoil we have witnessed in recent days is only marginally about America. What it's mostly about is the fight for power within these countries, with extremists looking for any opportunity — including the sacking of U.S. embassies — to pull people away from the path of democracy, moderation and consensus-building. Misreading this as pure anti-Americanism is a trap the U.S. should not fall into. The overwhelming majority of people recognize that the United States has been and will remain central to their goal of freedom.

Revolutions against oppressive governments can be a messy business, and they take time. The people will do it themselves, but they need America's moral support and America's help to build a brighter future. They need skilled, committed diplomats like Ambassador Stevens to provide guidance. In the case of Syria, we need all the support your government can provide for the transition to democracy, including aid for local governments that are already operating in liberated areas. We need continued humanitarian assistance and help for our refugees. And, yes, we need more weapons for carefully vetted elements of the Free Syrian Army to better defend our people — the fact that not all elements of the armed opposition share America's values is all the more reason to empower those who do.

The groups currently vying for influence across the Middle East include many pro-democracy forces with widespread support, but they are competing with others who often do not share our goals. Part of our common fight is to isolate them and empower the vast majority who are committed to a democratic and peaceful future. This is important for the region; it is important for the United States, and it is important for the world.

As the service of Ambassadors Stevens and Ford remind us all, American can and must make a difference. Please don't step back from the challenge.

Ziadeh is executive director of the Syria Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a spokesman for the Coalition for a Democratic Syria.