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Published: Thursday, September 13, 2012, 3:25 p.m.

Arab Spring, American Winter

They don't fear us, and they don't respect us. That's the only message you can take away from an Egyptian mob's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo during which rioters scaled embassy walls and tore down the American flag on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. President Barack Obama helped ease out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- a dictator, yes, but also an ally -- to facilitate the Arab Spring, and this is the thanks America gets.
Sadly, a separate assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic staffers presents a different lesson. Despite ample U.S. military assistance, Libya's civil war isn't over. Stevens' brave support of Libyans' efforts to overthrow strongman Moammar Gadhafi likely made him a target.
"How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked. She placed the responsibility on "a small and savage group," not on "the people or government of Libya."
Over time, Americans will learn more about what happened and why. Already, the attacks are playing a part in presidential campaign politics.
As protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday, the embassy released a statement that condemned "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." It was a salvo against Quran-burning preacher Terry Jones and the movie "The Innocence of Muslims," which deliberately lampoons Prophet Muhammad.
After protesters scaled the embassy walls, some conservatives (unaware of the timing of the statement's release) slammed diplomats for issuing an excuse of sorts for those who had attacked a U.S. facility.
The Obama administration also seemed to think the embassy had struck the wrong note. The administration disavowed the embassy's statement.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney then released a statement in which he asserted that it was "disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks ... but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." On Wednesday, after learning of Stevens' death, Romney hit Obama for sending "mixed messages."
Then the media spent the morning kicking Romney for jumping the gun as pundits liberally blamed preacher Jones and the movie-makers for inciting violence in Africa.
Now it seems the critics may have jumped the gun. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri had released a video calling on Islamists to avenge the death of a Libyan-born cleric killed in a U.S. drone attack. Intelligence officials believe the Benghazi attack was planned well in advance.
Maybe it's not a coincidence that mobs attacked two U.S. delegations on the same day. And isn't it time that the experts asked whether al-Qaida sympathizers were looking for an excuse for a 9/11 rampage? So why give them cover by blaming crazy talkers such as Terry Jones?

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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Herald Editorial Board

Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor: jbauer@heraldnet.com

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer: cmacpherson@heraldnet.com

Neal Pattison, Executive Editor: npattison@heraldnet.com

Josh O'Connor, Publisher: joconnor@heraldnet.com

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