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U.S. President Barack Obama, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaks about the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens on Sept. 12, 2012.

Evan Vucci/AP

On Sept. 3, 1879, the British residency in Kabul was stormed by mutinous Afghan soldiers. The British resident, Louis Cavagnari, his staff and his military guard were all slaughtered. Within weeks, British armies marched into Afghanistan from India to exact a vengeance that included the destruction of much of Kabul.

A little more than a century later, on Nov. 22, 1979, an angry mob of Pakistanis, fired up by absurd rumours that American aircraft had bombed Muslim shrines in Mecca, attacked the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. The embassy was destroyed and two Americans, including a U.S. Marine guard, were killed. The rest of the embassy staff escaped. Needing Pakistan, a supposed ally, as a counterweight to crises in neighbouring Iran and Afghanistan, Washington's response to this outrage was low-key, accepting compensation for the destroyed embassy.

On Wednesday, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was destroyed by Muslim militants, supposedly enraged by a movie's trailer on the Internet hostile to the Prophet Mohammed. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. How will Washington respond to this murderous attack? Will it emulate the robust British actions of 1879 or the low-key U.S. response of 1979?

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Sadly, for those looking for a reassertion of U.S. power in the world, the Obama administration's response will most likely be a rerun of 1979. Pakistan was America's ally, but the current government of Libya is something more: America's own creation.

The United States and its NATO allies played a major part in the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The new government in Tripoli is the product of a supposedly democratic election, but it's still very much subordinate to U.S. control. It also remains extremely weak – few of the local militias created during the civil war have been disarmed, and Islamic militants, including affiliates of al-Qaeda, are still active in the country.

Libya's security forces clearly can't control the situation, especially in Cyrenaica, the region controlled from Benghazi that wishes to break away from the rest of the country. Should the United States directly intervene, as the British did in Afghanistan in 1879? Even if a U.S. military intervention came at the request of Libya's official government, it would immediately be denounced by Islamic militants as yet another Western invasion of a Muslim country.

The Benghazi incident comes at a most inopportune time for Barack Obama. He's in the middle of a presidential election campaign and his Republican opponents have made much of his weak foreign policy. Mr. Obama's success in approving the killing of Osama bin Laden has been offset by the war in Afghanistan, a war that is slowly winding down to stalemate, and total indecision about what action to take in Syria's civil war.

Will the jibes from the Romney camp force Mr. Obama to take decisive action in Libya? It seems unlikely. The precedent will be 1979, not 1879. U.S. military intervention in Libya would be fraught with too many unknown consequences. But it's possible, following the precedent of Yemen, that Washington will collaborate with the Tripoli government to deploy "killer drones" in Libya so that unacknowledged air strikes can be carried out to kill Muslim militants.

Alan G. Jamieson is author of Faith and Sword: A Short History of Christian-Muslim Conflict.

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