The assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen this week have stunned Washington, forcing it to urgently confront the tumultuous aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings it supported.
In Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in a brazen attack by armed Islamist militants Tuesday, "it was clear a year ago the risks were there that a popular uprising could actually lead toward anarchy," said Michael Semple, a former deputy to the EU's special representative for Afghanistan.
"The fact that central authority has not been fully restored, that institutions are weak, and that space exists for the type of groups that have carried out the attacks - and that essentially nobody is in a position to challenge - that remains a question mark," said Semple, who traveled to Tripoli during the rebellion that overthrew Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The deadly assault raised questions for Americans, as well, about their country's involvement in Libya.
"Today, many Americans are asking - indeed, I asked myself - how could this happen?" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement on Wednesday. "How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be."
The absence of a sturdy security apparatus in post-Qaddafi Libya makes such violent assaults by well-armed groups hardly surprising, said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
The security situation echoes that which followed the elimination of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baathist regime in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003, said Khouri, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
"When a whole superstructure of government was wiped away by American decree, there was chaos," Khouri said. "There was no police, no army. And therefore you've seen what's been going on in Iraq for the past 10 years."
In Egypt, meanwhile, President Mohammed Morsi waited a day to issue a statement condemning Tuesday's attack by a violent mob that stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo in protest of a defamatory YouTube video targeting Islam.
Robert Danin, a former State Department official with extensive experience in the Middle East, said Egypt's hardline ruling Muslim Brotherhood party-with which Morsi is affiliated-was "frighteningly quiet," in the wake of the incident, in which protesters replaced a U.S. flag in the compound with a black Islamist flag.
"They called on the United States to issue an apology for the film that has insulted the Muslim world," Danin said in an interview with the Council of Foreign Affairs, where he is a senior fellow. "They have called a nationwide protest on Friday about the film. ...The Egyptian government should be focusing on the attack on the embassy, not trying to lead demonstrations against a film, however reprehensible it may be."
The United States backed Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak for decades before he was deposed in a revolution that paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood's victory in subsequent popular elections. Washington has supported the grassroots pursuit of free and fair elections in Egypt, though the events of this week have jolted officials here.
President Barack Obama told Telemundo in an interview that aired Wednesday evening that he does not see Egypt as an ally.
"I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama said. "They're a new government that is trying to find its way. They were democratically elected. I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident."
Protesters continued to demonstrate at the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Thursday, and hundreds attempted to attack the U.S. embassy compound in Yemen in protest of the incendiary video.
Obama spoke with Morsi by telephone Thursday and "underscored the importance of Egypt following through on its commitment to cooperate with the United States in securing U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel," the White House said in a statement.
"President Morsi expressed his condolences for the tragic loss of American life in Libya and emphasized that Egypt would honor its obligation to ensure the safety of American personnel," the statement said.
Morsi's tepid response is a partly a sign of the pressure he and his political allies are feeling from fundamentalist Salafi factions in Egypt, said Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"They can't now vacate this area of debate within Egypt and hand this entire debate over to the Salafis to be seen to be the defenders of the Prophet, the defenders of Islam, the antagonists against the West," Husain told reporters in a conference call this week.
"Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's street activists would like to have some of that pie too. By saying the right thing on this occasion it means taking a huge political hit on the Egyptian streets. And I don't think he's prepared to do that."