Paul  Kengor

In the last 24 hours, beginning with the 11th anniversary of 9/11, all hell has broken loose in the Middle East. Our diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya have been attacked, with the U.S. ambassador to Libya among those brutally murdered by Islamists. Much will continue to be said about this, but the similarities to Iran 33 years ago are striking. And make no mistake about it, rightly or wrongly, this is now a major political issue in our presidential election, as it was in the 1980 presidential election. Just like that, in one explosive burst, foreign policy is on the front-burner in the 2012 campaign.

Over the last four years, longtime authoritarian Arab leaders in Egypt and Libya have been deposed, supplanted—we fear—by longtime extremist Islamic movements. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak is gone. In Libya, Moammar Kaddafi is gone. Neither man was, by any stretch, a democrat. And yet, we worry that they have been replaced by something much worse.

Well, something similar unfolded in Iran 33 years ago, when a longtime authoritarian leader and close U.S. ally, the Shah, was replaced by an extremist Islamic movement headed by the Ayatollah, producing the world’s worst, longest-running theocratic/terrorist state. The moment was dramatized on November 4, 1979, when the U.S. embassy was seized and over 50 American hostages were captured and held for 444 days. Like in Egypt, it all seemed to begin, at least visually, symbolically, with the burning of the American flag at our embassy.

The current chaos in Egypt was reportedly precipitated not by any sort of vile commemoration of 9/11, but by an anti-Mohammed film released in parts on the internet and broadcast inside Egypt. That said, it was also reported that the American flag outside the embassy was replaced by pro-Al Qaeda (the perpetrators of 9/11) flags. What other factors may have sparked Egypt and the Libyan outburst? Fairly or unfairly, that’s where the politics comes in.