What happened in Egypt was very simple. The Egyptian government knew that a demonstration would be held by radical anti-American forces, including the local branch of al-Qaeda, outside the U.S. embassy. Through an understanding of the ideology, analysis of public statements and past experience, and probably intelligence penetration, it knew they intended to storm the embassy.
The highest levels of the Egyptian government decided not to protect the embassy, in breach of their international obligations. And they knew — or rightly expected — that the Obama administration would not punish them for behaving that way.
What’s the difference between Iran in 1978 and Egypt in 2012? In the first case, the Iranian Islamist government let its supporters take over the embassy completely and seized everyone inside as hostages. This led to a confrontation. The more cautious Egyptian regime simply let the mob trash the part of the embassy outside of the buildings. After all, there are billions of dollars in U.S. funds and arms to be obtained by a little restraint.
The Egypt case is also interesting from the Israel-as-canary-in-the-coal-mine image. A year ago, the Egyptian government let the mob attack the embassy and stopped them only when they were about to try to grab the diplomats inside. President Barack Obama finally bestirred himself and asked the Egyptian government to stop the assault.
I have heard some commentators bash Obama for making a gaffe in saying Egypt was no longer an ally. That’s not the point –Obama was admitting to the loss of America’s most important ally in the Arab world. It wasn’t a mistake. Obama, however unintentionally, spoke the truth. It’s the reality that’s so upsetting. (I bet that Obama is now being briefed on a long list of anti-American actions by Egypt’s government, including ones we don’t know about, and just blurted out what the intelligence and State Department people are telling him in private.)
A few months from now, it will be increasingly apparent that it is now in the enemy category.