BENGHAZI, Libya When people here talk about U.S. politics, many look to the sky, where the buzz of surveillance drones has grown heavy since last months deadly assault on the United States mission in this city in eastern Libya.
Give it a rest, Obama, one resident posted in a Twitter message on Saturday morning, after a low-flying drone woke much of the city. We want to get some sleep.
The drones are a vivid reminder that Benghazi has become the focal point of a fierce debate over what role the United States should seek to play in shaping the new order emerging from the revolts of the Arab Spring, an issue that is expected to be a flash point in Monday nights foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.
Yet Benghazi has entered the U.S. political lexicon with contradictory meanings.
To Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, the city has become a shorthand for the growing threat to the United States from Islamist militants and what Romney advisers call the Obama administrations passivity in the face of the menace.
To Obama, Benghazi is also the place where moderate Islamists took up arms to defend U.S. diplomats from extremists, a democratically elected president rushed to express his solidarity with Washington and thousands turned out to demand the rule of law and mourn an American envoy.
Obama has emphasized cautious restraint during the Arab Spring, out of philosophical support for Arab demands for self-governance and out of a conviction that events in the region are largely beyond U.S. control. Romney has stressed his wariness of the popular uprisings and vowed a more assertive approach to influencing their outcome.
That disagreement in many ways mirrors the paradoxical views of the U.S. held by many of the regions people and policymakers, who see Washington as all-powerful but doomed to self-sabotage whenever it intervenes there.
Many here ask, nodding toward the sky, has the United States not learned the lessons of Iraq?
People, psychologically, are quite anxious, said Jalal el-Gallal, a Benghazi activist who worries the pressures of an election year could prompt a U.S. strike on militants suspected in the consulate attack. It would destroy all the good will that was won over the last two years of engagement, and it could undermine the elected government and make the place ungovernable.
More than a decade of public opinion polls have shown that, except for the hope that the United States might goad Israel toward recognizing a Palestinian state, overwhelming majorities of the populations in every Arab country would prefer a more restrained U.S. foreign policy. For many, Romneys assertion that there is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East is just false.
If Obamas soft touch is popular in the region, however, it may not be in the United States best interest, argued Shadi Hamid, research director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
There is a widespread sense in the region that Obama is a weak, somewhat feckless leader, he said, citing Obamas acquiescence in confrontations with Israeli leaders over settlements and with Egypts generals over the prosecution of U.S.-backed nonprofit groups.
People think that if you are in a standoff with Obama and you hold your ground, he will eventually back down, Hamid said.
The contrast between the candidates is so stark that they sometimes appear to be on opposite sides of the Arab Spring itself. Obama, his advisers say, began with the premise that the old U.S.-backed order of secular autocracies was already crumbling from within and could no longer promise stability, while the Arab demands for self-governance accorded more with U.S. values.
The president made a decision to side with democratic change, said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, and we made it clear that it is not our place to dictate the outcomes in any given country.
Romney has emphasized the risks of uprisings. Eliot A. Cohen, a foreign policy adviser to his campaign, said he questioned the concept of an Arab Spring altogether. It is not clear to me what is germinating, he said.